- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2008

LAFAYETTE, Tenn. — President Bush yesterday toured scenes of devastation in a northern Tennessee town ripped apart this week by the worst tornadoes the country has seen in more than two decades, and assumed the role of comforter.

“Life has been turned upside down here,” Mr. Bush said, surrounded by people 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 persons died in Tuesday’s storm.

The storm hit five Southern states and killed at least 58 persons.

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.”

He came upon G.W. and Paulette Warner, who were cleaning up with their teenage grandchildren the remains of an apartment building 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. Bush also met firefighter Dave Harmon, 31, who found an 11-month-old boy face down in the mud while searching for survivors. The child, Kyson Stowell, was thrown 300 feet from his home by the storm, which killed his 23-year-old mother.

Late on Thursday, Mr. Bush declared federal disaster areas in Tennessee and Arkansas, making federal funding available to five Tennessee counties and 10 counties in Arkansas.

Mr. Bush yesterday 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.

The president commended officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but also said that state officials had been quick to request help. White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said that FEMA has improved its disaster response since its poor performance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“That effort to anticipate the needs of states, and anticipate the needs of those first responders and local responders is a shift, and one that has helped us better coordinate with the states and localities,” Mr. Stanzel said.

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, who was waving a large American flag on a metal pole, back and forth as vigorously as she could.

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

“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, with rubble stretching behind him for hundreds of yards.

“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.

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