LAFAYETTE, Tenn. – President Bush, dispensing hugs freely as he comforted tornado survivors Friday, acknowledged the "incredible sadness and worry" he saw in their eyes and said the nation stood ready to help.
"I have no doubt in my mind this community will come back better than before," Bush told residents of the poor, tobacco-farming area near the Kentucky border. "Macon County people are down to earth, hardworking, God-fearing people, who if just given a little help, will come back stronger."
The county suffered the heaviest death toll from the dozens of tornadoes that tore across Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky and Alabama on Tuesday.
Bush walked to the home of Phil and June Spears to visit with shattered residents, urging them to take solace in the people who have flocked to the area to help the community recover.
"We're sorry you're going through what you're going through," the president said. "Life sometimes is unfair, but there's help."
Even before Bush landed, he declared major disasters in Tennessee and Arkansas, a move that opens the spigot of federal funding to cover some costs, shared with local governments, for debris removal and protective measures and to help individuals. Sensitive to criticism it was ignoring other states hit by the storms, the White House said these were the only two states that had so far asked for help.
Even as search operations continue, the death count from the barrage of tornadoes has reached nearly 60. Macon County's toll rose to 14 on Thursday.
The path to where Bush met with storm victims crossed a grassy expanse littered with debris: part of a wooden chair leg, a small pair of ruby red, glittery mary janes — the two shoes somehow only inches apart — a crumpled dress and a prescription bottle. Two-by-fours and insulation strips were scattered in random piles.
Members of the Warner family sifted through the remains of their home, finding dishes and sports trophies that could be salvaged. Their building had a stairway leading to a second floor that no longer exists and a mound of possessions in what used to be a garage.
"Everybody in this building is good, shook up but good," said Paulette Warner, detailing how one person was saved by taking shelter in a now-freestanding closet and another by being wrapped in a carpet as the winds' force shredded the house around him and ripped it away.
Bush began his visit to the disaster zone the way he usually does: by getting a look at the damage from his helicopter, in this case on his way in from Nashville. He was traveling with members of Congress from Tennessee — both senators and three local congressmen.
As Bush's helicopter flew low over the hills of sparsely populated north central Tennessee, he saw snapped trees and remnants of buildings strewn across fields as if they had been dragged by the storm. The twisters' impact was random. Intact structures and destroyed ones were often just feet apart.
Bush said it was unfortunate that he had to visit the state under these circumstances.
"But nonetheless, the mission is to find out what we can do to help," he said.
Bush met at a local fire department with a range of officials, including Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat; the head of the state National Guard; and Lafayette Mayor Bill Wells. They heard a briefing from a coordinating officer from the regional FEMA office, Gracia Szczech, about the federal resources that have been committed to the area.
Her assessment was backed up by James Bassham, the director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, who said he had nothing but praise for his federal counterparts. Bassham said it was remarkable that more lives weren't lost, as 31 touchdowns were recorded. He credited early warnings from the National Weather Service and the state.
Disasters have struck often in Bush's presidency, allowing him to display prowess in some but not all — most notably Hurricane Katrina in 2005. His and his administration's response in the immediate aftermath of that massive storm — and since — has persistently been criticized for leaving Gulf Coast residents and towns, particularly those in New Orleans, without the help they need. Bush has labored since to respond quickly, decisively and compassionately when disasters hit, but the impression of him cast in Katrina's devastation has never been erased and is likely to linger as part of his presidential legacy.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said the government has learned many lessons since Katrina, and is much better now at not only answering locals' needs in times of emergency, but anticipating them. FEMA assets were in the tornado-struck region as early as Tuesday night, he said.