President Barack Obama Visits Tornado-Devastated Joplin [Video]

The president walked through a destroyed neighborhood before attending a memorial service for those killed in Missouri’s deadly tornados.

U.S. President Barack Obama has spent the last six days building international connections with Europe, but now it’s time to focus on an even more important relationship – with his own people. President Barack Obama on Sunday hailed the bravery and resilience of residents of the tornado-ravaged Missouri town of Joplin, vowing the federal government will be with them as they rebuild “every step of the way.”

On its approach Air Force One swept over a massive swath of brown as far as the eye could see — a landscape of flattened houses and stripped trees. Gov. Jay Nixon and others greeted the president on the tarmac before they set out for their first stop, a walking tour of a destroyed neighborhood.

“This is not just your tragedy. This is a national tragedy, and that means there will be a national response,” Obama said. The president visited with survivors and family members of the worst tornado in decades – a monster EF-5 storm packing 200 mph winds that tore through Joplin a week ago. The president toured destroyed neighborhoods in the city of 50,000, where more than 130 people were killed and more than 900 injured.

Speaking at a public memorial service at Missouri Southern State University, Obama cited the “heroes all around us” who rushed to respond to the tornado’s aftermath, including some who turned their pickup trucks into makeshift ambulances and carried the injured on doors instead of stretchers.

“You’ve waited in line for hours to donate blood to people you know, but also people you have never met,” he told the audience. “Amid heartbreak and tragedy, no one is a stranger. There is no doubt in my mind, Joplin will rebuild. And as president, let me tell you, your country will be there with you every step of the way.”

The president’s motorcade pulled into a neighborhood where downed trees cleaved open houses, roofs were stripped or blown off, cars were cratered and splintered wood was everywhere. He saw nothing whole, but rather small domestic sights — a view into a room with a TV still in place, a recliner sitting amid rubble, a washer-dryer standing next to a decimated house. American flags were planted here and there in the mess.

“Sorry for your loss,” Mr. Obama told an anguished woman, hugging her twice as they talked. Another woman told him that her uncle lives up the road — he survived but his house did not. “Tell your uncle we’re praying for him,” the president said. To those working at the scene, the president said: “We appreciate everything you guys are doing. God bless you.”

One volunteer told him that people were streaming in from other states to help any way they could. President Obama vowed: “We are going to be here long after the cameras leave. We’re not going to stop ’til Joplin’s back on its feet.”

Obama returned to the U.S. on Saturday from a six-day European tour of Ireland, Britain, France and Poland. After days of focusing on the U.S. relationship with the rest of the world, he turned to an even more critical connection: his own, with the American people.

He was visiting survivors and the bereaved from the worst tornado in decades, which tore through Joplin a week ago leaving more than 120 dead and hundreds more injured. At least 40 remain unaccounted for, and the damage is massive.

Consoling his fellow Americans is a task Obama has had to assume with increasing frequency of late, after the mass shooting in Arizona in January in which Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was injured, when tornadoes struck Tuscaloosa, Ala., last month and, more recently, when flooding from the Mississippi inundated parts of Memphis, Tenn.

Though times of trouble can erase politics and unite people, a phenomenon Obama has commented on, his task as healer Sunday unfolded on unfriendly political ground as his re-election campaign approaches. Obama narrowly lost Missouri to Republican John McCain in 2008, but in Jasper County, where Joplin is located, McCain won by a large margin: 66 percent to 33 percent. [via CBS News, CS Monitor and Daily Mail (UK)]

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