After an outbreak of tornadoes ripped through the Southeast this week, killing more than 300 people in seven states, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama visited Alabama to see firsthand the extent of the damage. With at least 210 fatalities, Alabama was hit hardest by the storms.
"We can't bring those who have been lost back," Obama told residents on Friday as he toured eastern Tuscaloosa, the site of crumpled buildings and houses with blown-off doors. "We can help maybe a little bit with the families dealing with the grief of having a loved one lost. But the property damage, which is obviously extensive, that's something that we can do something about."
On Thursday the president issued a major disaster declaration for Alabama, unlocking millions of dollars in federal aid for residents who suffered personal property damages or losses, and for public infrastructure. A FEMA overview of federal response efforts includes the deployment of search and rescue teams; activating emergency staff to shore up transportation, mass care and public health; and moving supplies such as water, infant toddler kits and tarps to affected areas.
The influx of support is a relief for local legislators, whose earlier requests for federal aid after a different round of tornadoes on April 15 were crushingly denied.
"We're going to make sure that you're not forgotten and that we do everything we can to make sure that we rebuild," Obama said. Surveying the damage, he remarked, "I've never seen devastation like this."
Lauren Bradford, a junior at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, was even more shocked. After her experience weathering the storm, she's amazed even to be alive. On Wednesday night the 20-year-old crouched in the bathtub of her second-floor apartment when the floor began to cave in. Before falling all the way down into the unit below hers, she was blown out of the building entirely. A neighbor rushed out to help, pulling her inside his home.
"It was like something out of a war movie," she told The Root of the scene after the storm passed, a mess of flipped-over cars, toppled houses and roads blocked by fallen trees. An auto parts store that once stood several blocks away had blown right in front of her building. "Everything was gone. There was nowhere for us to go."
Bradford, who sustained cuts to her back and legs, and about 200 neighbors walked to the hospital where local paramedics and faith groups did their best to contain the chaos. Her parents picked her up from Birmingham the next day before FEMA supplies arrived, but the agency says it has now coordinated its efforts with local responders.
"Mentally it's still kind of chaotic, but I'm feeling OK," said Bradford. "I'm not worried about the stuff. I can get new stuff — I'm just thankful to still be here."