- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2007

GREENSBURG, Kan. (AP) — President Bush sought to lift spirits yesterday in the wake of a killer tornado, dishing out hugs while stepping through the rubble of what had been a close-knit town of 1,400.

The president said he came to Kansas to tour the wreckage in the hopes that he could “touch somebody’s soul by representing our country.”

“A lot of us have seen the pictures about what happened here, and pictures don’t do it justice,” said Mr. Bush, standing in the street in front of a brick one-story home that now has no roof. “There is a lot of destruction. Fortunately, a lot of folks had basements here in this part of the world and lived to see another day. Unfortunately, too many died.”

On a day that alternated between rain and sun, Mr. Bush got his first look from a helicopter that hovered over the ruins of the southwest Kansas town that was flattened Friday night. The twister killed at least 11 persons. It was the most-punishing tornado to hit the United States in years.

On a short ride into town after his aerial tour, Mr. Bush got a rundown of the damage and the recovery from City Administrator Steve Hewitt and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat. She and the White House had a spat a day ago — apparently now resolved — over whether National Guard deployments to Iraq had hampered the government’s ability to respond here.

Mr. Bush already had ordered emergency aid for the people, business and governments in the Greensburg area. His trip was about delivering something else — presidential empathy.

At one point, Mr. Bush stopped at a tractor dealership, the building gutted and its expensive plows mangled. It had been a major employer in town, and the president freely dished out hugs.

He offered prayers, condolences, praise and offers of aid.

“Whatever help is in the law [will] be here as quickly as possible,” Mr. Bush said. “While there was a dark day in the past, there’s brighter days ahead.”

Homeowner Kaye Hardinger said people in the town appreciated the president’s visit.

“It let us know he cared about us,” she said.

The president’s last stop before returning to the District was at a makeshift command center for another briefing on the recovery efforts.

Greensburg has been known for its friendly charm, right down to the old-fashioned soda fountain at the drug store. The town’s proud claim to fame is the Big Well, considered the largest in the world to be dug by hand. Now the fountain is gone, and the well buried is in debris.

Though some locals said it was too early and too raw to feel confident about rebuilding, officials from Mrs. Sebelius down to Mayor Lonnie McCollum said it would happen, with replacing the employment base the key.

“There will be money,” the governor said. “These are resilient people … We have an opportunity to rebuild a real American town.”

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