What Obama will find in tornado-torn Alabama

President Obama travels to Alabama Friday to see first-hand the impact of tornadoes whose casualty toll across six states rises to 319.

Charles Dharapak / AP
President Obama walks with Col. Charles F. Spencer, Jr., vice commander, 89th Airlift Wing, Andrews Air Force Base, as he prepares to travel to Tuscaloosa, Ala. on Friday, to visit tornado-damaged areas.

Along with shocking visages of flattened neighborhoods, shattered farms, and torn-up valleys, President Obama will confront staggering grief, numb shock, – as well as a measure of deep resolve – as he tours Alabama today.

The President and first lady will join Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and FEMA officials to survey the destruction. Obama is likely to make comments during at least two stops during the day, according to the White House. On Thursday, the president called the devastation "heartbreaking."

“In a matter of hours, these deadly tornadoes – some of the worst that we’ve seen in decades – took mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors, even entire communities,” Obama said. "I want every American who has been affected by this disaster to know the federal government will do everything we can to help you recover, and we will stand with you as you rebuild."

The rising death toll – now at 319 across six states, with over 200 in Alabama alone – has surpassed a 1974 "Super Tornado Outbreak" that spanned most of the nation, and now approaches the toll of strongest tornado system in US history, the "Tri-State Tornado" of 1925, which claimed 695 American lives as it traveled 219 miles.

The eerily similar scope of this week's damage, as well as the intensity and longevity of several of the tornadoes caused Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox to wonder, "I don't know how anyone survived."

But survive they did, in the face of storms that leveled apartment complexes and fire stations and even forced a nuclear power plant to power down.

"These were the most intense super-cell thunderstorms that I think anybody who was out there forecasting has ever seen," meteorologist Greg Carbin at the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., told the Associated Press. "If you experienced a direct hit from one of these, you'd have to be in a reinforced room, storm shelter or underground" to survive, he said.

Search and rescue operations – carried out by state and federal officials as well as neighbors – continued feverishly into Thursday as reports of missing people continued to drive searchers. But by Friday, tons of debris remained unsifted.

"We are still in process of searching the houses and areas that were damaged, looking for people who may be trapped," said Jimmy Harris, sheriff of Dekalb County, Ala., who is dealing with at least 30 lives lost in his corner of northeastern Alabama. "There are still many people who've been reported missing and are unaccounted for, and we are doing our best to locate them."

Officials have worked alongside civilians as the devastation far outdistanced the state's manpower. "Everybody's been doing a great job, but there's no way [officials] can handle this by themselves," says Don Oliver, helping a Cherokee County family dig belongings out of a destroyed home. "All hands have been on deck."

The breadth of destruction stunned many residents. "We have our own little 'Tornado Alley' here," says Susan Pell, who lives near the site of the 1994 "Palm Sunday Tornado" that claimed 20 lives. "But this is something else entirely. They say the tornado was weakening as it hit us. This is weak?" In her sightline lay a valley devastated by a tornado whose windspeeds may have exceeded 200 miles per hour.

In Tuscaloosa, Ala., where at least 36 people died, the devastation stretches for miles and over a thousand people are living in shelters. In Phil Campbell, Ala., a town of 1,000 residents lost at least 26 people, as a half-mile-scale twister tore through some 20 miles of rolling country.

The havoc reached beyond Alabama; at least six states report major casualties. Twelve people died in tiny Smithville, Miss., as a tornado tore apart the post office, city hall and homes. Smithville Baptist Church Pastor Wes White told the Associated Press that congregants gripped each other as a single "mass of humanity" as the church broke apart around them.

But as communities came together to search and sift, grief found an outlet in camaraderie and the common purpose of rebuilding, writes Birmingham resident Kyle Whitmire, a blogger at Second Front, in a CNN op-ed.

"There is something real though to be found in the response of so many people, both from neighbors next door and strangers far away," he writes. "The thousands of acts of small heroism happening now bring with them the meaning and hope we need right now. Healing is not a passive act, nor a solitary one, but one carried out together."

April has seen 685 tornadoes, mostly in the South, the most for an April since modern records were begun in the 1950s. During his visit, Obama will probably focus on what Washington can do to help – and the sense of loss shared by a nation.

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