US President Barack Obama promised US federal aid on Friday to the tornado-ravaged southern US, where deadly twisters have killed at least 339 people and caused billions of US dollars in damage.
Obama toured smashed homes and met survivors on a visit to the worst-hit state, Alabama. It was one of seven southern US states mauled by recent tornadoes and storms which have caused insured losses of between US$2 billion and US$5 billion, according to one catastrophe risk modeler’s estimate.
“We are going to do everything we can to help these communities rebuild,” Obama told reporters in Tuscaloosa, a university city in Alabama that was devastated by the tornadoes.
The destruction inflicted this week by the twisters, which flattened whole neighborhoods, was the deadliest US natural catastrophe since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“I have never seen devastation like this. It is heartbreaking,” Obama said, accompanied by his wife, Michelle, and Alabama Governor Robert Bentley. “This is something I don’t think anyone has seen before.”
In Alabama, emergency officials again raised the death toll from the tornadoes in that state, to 238. Bentley said 1,700 people were injured.
At least 101 more deaths were reported across Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, Virginia and Louisiana.
US Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said it was feared the number of deaths would rise as states searched for many people unaccounted for. However, the number of missing was not clear.
“We can’t bring those who’ve been lost back. They’re alongside God at this point ... but the property damage, which is obviously extensive, that’s something we can do something about,” Obama said.
“With initial reports of buildings destroyed approaching 10,000, property insurance losses are expected to range from US$2 to US$5 Billion,” catastrophe risk modeling company EQECAT said.
“Tornado activity in April is putting 2011 into the record books,” it said, adding that the recent tornado outbreak had involved “hundreds of touchdowns, some tornado tracks reported to be almost a mile wide and tens of miles long causing hundreds of fatalities”.
Obama was eager to show that federal relief is on its way and that he is not taking the disaster lightly. His predecessor, former US president George W. Bush, was fiercely criticized for what was viewed as a slow response to Hurricane Katrina.
Flying into Tuscaloosa aboard Air Force One, Obama and his family saw a wide brown scar of devastation several kilometers long and hundreds of meters wide.
Tuscaloosa resident Jack Fagan, 23, was glad that Obama saw the damage.
“Perhaps federal funds will help us, but I’m sure it will take longer than they say because it always does,” Fagan said.
Recovery could cost billions of US dollars and even with federal disaster aid it could complicate efforts by affected states to bounce back from recession.
Tornadoes are a regular feature of life in the southern and midwest US, but they are rarely so devastating.
The tornadoes hit Alabama’s poultry industry and hurt other manufacturers in the state.
The second-biggest US nuclear power plant, the Browns Ferry facility in Alabama, may be down for weeks after its power was knocked out and the plant automatically shut, avoiding a nuclear disaster, officials said.
In Tuscaloosa, the twisters, including one more than a kilometer wide, cut a path of destruction, reducing houses to rubble, flipping cars and knocking out utilities. The death count was expected to rise with many bodies still trapped under debris.