Obama tours devastated Alabama; 334 dead - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

Obama tours devastated Alabama; 334 dead

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley flew over Alabama Thursday with FEMA administrator Craig Fugate. (Source: WAFF) Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley flew over Alabama Thursday with FEMA administrator Craig Fugate. (Source: WAFF)
President Barack Obama speaks about the storm damage Thursday. (Source: CNN) President Barack Obama speaks about the storm damage Thursday. (Source: CNN)
President Obama and family departed Washington by 9:30 a.m. ET. (Source: CNN) President Obama and family departed Washington by 9:30 a.m. ET. (Source: CNN)
President Obama, Governor Bentley and Mayor Maddox tour the damaged city of  Tuscaloosa, AL. (Source: CNN) President Obama, Governor Bentley and Mayor Maddox tour the damaged city of Tuscaloosa, AL. (Source: CNN)

TUSCALOOSA, AL (RNN) - President Barack Obama and his family toured the shattered remains of storm-ravaged neighborhoods in Tuscaloosa, AL, and offered hope and help as 19 Alabama counties and seven states attempt to recover from storms that killed more than 300 people.

Alabama took the brunt of the storm, with more than 210 people killed and 1,700 injured. First responders are still attempting to recover survivors, and experts have completed preliminary assessments of the force and destruction generated by the tornadoes.

"This is something I don't think anyone has seen before," Obama told reporters Friday. "We are going to do everything we can to help these communities recover. We can't bring back those lost, but we can help with the grief and the extensive property damage."

Accompanying Obama were first lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox and members of Alabama's congressional delegation also joined Obama on the tour.

Fatalities by state

Alabama: 228

Tennessee: 34

Mississippi: 32

Georgia: 15

Arkansas: 13

Virginia: 11

Kentucky: 1

Total: 334

Between Wednesday afternoon and 8 a.m. CT on Thursday, eye witnesses reported 163 tornadoes. One of those, a mile-wide monster that was probably an EF4 or EF5, narrowly missed the campus of the University of Alabama, coming within a quarter-mile of the campus.

However, far and wide along a corridor through town the tornado smashed, collapsed, snapped and twisted everything in sight.

Experts suggest the tornado stayed on the ground to cut a path three states wide, from Mississippi to Georgia.

Across the South, fatalities were reported in seven states: Tennessee, 34; Mississippi, 32; Georgia, 15; Arkansas, 13; Virginia, 11; 1 in Kentucky; and 228 in Alabama.

"In a matter of hours, these deadly tornadoes, some of the worst we've seen in decades, took mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors, even entire communities," Obama said in a news briefing Thursday.

Also Thursday, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate and Tuscaloosa native Bentley flew over the state to survey the damage done to 19 counties, especially Tuscaloosa County, which lost 37 people at last count.

"When I fly over this, it is difficult. I have to separate myself emotionally from this because I'm the governor of the whole state, but this is my home. I love the people of Tuscaloosa," Bentley said. "We're going to get through this because the people of Alabama are resilient and they care about each other."

University of Alabama law student Taylor Nichols emerged from his safe place to find the wall of his apartment collapsed.

"It sucked up the mattress off the bed frame, but the bed frame was there. The TV sitting in the corner of my room was still there. The wall was gone but the TV was still sitting there. I have no idea how that was even possible," he said.

[Click here to read about Taylor Nichols' 30 seconds of terror.]

Michael Neese, 21, a junior at the university, was in his apartment off 15th Street when the tornado passed by.

"It was like a white cloud just twirling in the parking lot next door to me," he said. "It tore Tuscaloosa up. All of 15th Street is gone."

[Click here to read more about Neese and other tornado survivors.]

A clearly shaken Maddox told CNN Thursday there are parts of his hometown he no longer recognizes.

"I don't know how anyone survived," he said. "We're used to tornadoes here in Tuscaloosa. It's part of growing up. But when you look at the path of destruction, that's likely 5-7 miles long in an area half a mile wide … it's an amazing scene."

The University of Alabama, with so many of its students, faculty and neighbors reeling from the disaster, canceled classes Thursday, and suspended graduation. In the wake of the disaster, students have taken shelter in a recreation center and have been provided meals of sandwiches by the school.

They were told by the university that if they could, they should return home to their families for the remainder of the semester.

"These steps are being taken to allow students impacted by the storms to return to their homes while recovery efforts continue in the Tuscaloosa area," said an email sent to students Thursday afternoon.

The storm reared its head about 5 p.m. CT Wednesday. It played out on live TV, and later on social networking sites like YouTube and Facebook. Some of the first reports of damage came through Twitter.

A group formed a page on Facebook to collect items blown away by the storm, hoping to reunite the scattered fragments of people's lives with their owners. It was one small way a community shattered by Mother Nature could come together, share their support and pick up the pieces.

"As you walk around, what you're struck by is peoples' resilience, they forget about their petty differences," Obama said. "We maintain our faith and look to each other to make sure we're supporting and helping each other."

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