- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2007

GREENSBURG, Kan. (AP) — Hovering in a helicopter over a town torn to shreds, President Bush on Wednesday got his first look at the astonishing damage caused by last week’s killer tornado.

Starting a day’s tour, Bush circled over Greensburg in southwest Kansas. He saw the flattened ruins of the most punishing tornado to hit the United States in years.

The Friday night storm obliterated Greensburg and killed at least 11 people.

After the aerial tour, Bush planned to walk the streets and hear from families who lost everything. He was also to be briefed on recovery efforts at a makeshift command center.

Roaring at up to 205 mph, spanning 1.7 miles, the twister destroyed an estimated 95 percent of the town. It was believed to be the fiercest tornado in the United States in at least eight years. The National Weather Service classified it an F-5, the most ferocious designation.

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

The White House has sought a much more aggressive and engaged reaction to disasters since Hurricane Katrina, when a bungled response became a turning point in Bush’s presidency.

“The response to this particular case was absolutely phenomenal,” declared R. David Paulison, the Federal Emergency Management Agency director, en route to Kansas with Bush.

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, the well buried in debris.

This community of 1,600 is a snarled mess of mud, wood, glass and wires.

Almost every building is gone - churches, the city hall, the hospital. The killer winds flung cars like coasters, ripped trees in half, smashed houses into pieces of insulation.

On a short ride into town, Bush was to get a rundown from city administrator Steve Hewitt and Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. She and the White House had a spat a day ago - later settled - over whether National Guard deployments to Iraq had hampered the response.

Meanwhile, stunned people here have been salvaging keepsakes. And bracing to rebuild.

Despite the tragedy, emergency officials know the death toll could have been much worse. An emergency warning about 20 minutes before the tornado hit helped people scramble to safety.

This is the third time in three months that Bush has played the role of national healer.

He comforted survivors of tornadoes that ripped through Alabama and Georgia in March, and offered words of hope at Virginia Tech after a gunman killed 32 people and himself in April.

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