- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

LAFAYETTE, TN President Bush today toured scenes of devastation in a northern Tennessee town ripped apart this week by the worst tornadoes this country has seen in more than two decades, and assumed the role of comforter that is now long familiar to him.

“Life has been turned upside down here,” Mr. Bush said, surrounded by local citizens who either lost their homes this week or were there to help others who had.

The president walked for an hour through the wreckage of a neighborhood called the Acresville community, where five people died in Tuesday’s storm.

The storm hit five southern states and killed at least 59 people, though government officials said that number was set to rise today.

Mr. Bush said he saw “incredible sadness and worry” in the eyes of residents he met, and tried to raise their spirits by hugging, shaking hands, posing for pictures, and cracking the occasional joke.

The president also said he was there to ensure that federal assistance was “compassionate and effective.”

Mr. Bush came upon G.W. and Paulette Warner, who were cleaning up with their teenage grandchildren the remains of an apartment building that they owned.

The Warners, who were standing in what used to be a living room but now had no walls or roof, pointed to the second floor of the apartment just behind them, which also had no walls or roof, but still contained a toilet, a partial closet, and a few chairs.

The man who lived there, they said, was lying down on the floor and holding on to a table leg when the storm hit. When the roof and walls came off, the man was rolled by the winds up into the carpet on the floor, but survived, thanks in part to the carpet protecting him.

The president, standing amid the wreckage with the Warners, winced.

Mr. Warner told reporters that “the building don’t mean nothing.”

“It’s just that nobody got hurt [in his building],” he said. But he said that someone had died just a few yards away, in another home that was destroyed.

Mr. Bush also flew in a helicopter over the worst hit areas in Macon County, Tenn., and was briefed on the storm’s damage by federal, state and local officials, who told him the fatality rate would have been higher if not for the state’s early warning system.

Mr. Bush told the disaster relief officials he was “saddened” by the storm’s toll.

He reassured homeowners Philip and June Spears that they would be “as strong as ever” one day.

“We’re sorry you’re going through what you’re going through,” Mr. Bush said, with rubble stretching behind him for hundreds of yards.

“You know, life sometimes is unfair and you don’t get to play the hand that you wanted to play. But the question is, when you get dealt the hand, how do you play it?” Mr. Bush said.

“You’re down to earth, good, hard-working people,” Mr. Bush said. “They have a respect for the Almighty.”

Mr. Spears responded: “Yes, sir. If it wasn’t for my friends, I don’t know what I’d do.”

“You’re going to find you got some new friends showing up, too,” the president said.

Mr. Bush yesterday declared a federal disaster exists in Tennessee and Arkansas, and made federal funding available to five Tennessee counties and ten counties in Arkansas.

The president commended officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but also said that state officials had been quick to request help.

The storm was the worst tornado incident in U.S. history since 1985, when tornadoes in Ohio and Pennsylvania killed 76 people.

James Bassham, director of the Tennessee emergency management agency, told Mr. Bush that there were 31 confirmed tornado touchdowns during the storm.

The funnels were F2 and F3, with one F4, and they traveled in two distinct tracks, going northeast across the state.

At one point, as the president”s motorcade drove through a neighborhood on its way to tour the damage, it passed a cluster of people at the foot of a driveway. Among them was a woman of about 60 years of age, who was waving a large American flag on a metal pole, back and forth as vigorously as she could.

Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, who traveled with the president, said he had “never seen anything” like the desolation he had seen that day, but said the people who had survived the storm were “awesome.”

“It was really moving to see the way people are coming together,” he said.

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