TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — Expressing amazement at the destruction all around him, President Barack Obama on Friday stepped through the wreckage left by rampaging tornadoes and pledged help to those who survived but lost their homes in a terrifying flash. "I've never seen devastation like this," the president said.
The storms have killed about 300 people in the U.S. South, mostly in Alabama. The loss of life — at least 297 dead — is the greatest from an outbreak of U.S. tornadoes since April 1974, when the weather service said 315 people were killed by a storm that swept across 13 Southern and Midwestern states.
"We're going to make sure you're not forgotten," Obama assured survivors as he and first lady Michelle Obama walked the streets of a reeling neighborhood.
As Obama traveled through Tuscaloosa, he absorbed the scenes of a community deeply deformed by the twisters, with trees uprooted and houses demolished. One young man told Obama he had witnessed debris lifting up all around him, yet he emerged with only cuts and bruises. "It's a blessing you are here," the president said.
Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, was harshly criticized as responding too slowly to another natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina, which battered and flooded New Orleans and other parts of the South in 2005.
The high death toll seems surprising in the era of sophisticated radar and precise satellite forecasts. But the storms were just too wide and too powerful to avoid a horrifying body count. One of the tornadoes that hit Mississippi on Wednesday had winds of 205 mph (330 kph), the National Weather Service said Friday. That storm was a half-mile (a kilometer) wide, was on the ground for three miles (five kilometers) and killed 14 people.
Those who took shelter began returning home Thursday, struggling with no electricity and little help from stretched-thin law enforcement. And they were frustrated by the near-constant presence of gawkers who drove by in search of a cellphone camera picture — or worse, a trinket to take home.
As many as a million homes and businesses in Alabama were without power, and Alabama Governor Robert Bentley said 2,000 National Guard troops had been activated to help. The governors of Mississippi and Georgia also issued emergency declarations for parts of their states.
The storms seemed to home in on populated areas by hugging the interstate highways and obliterating neighborhoods and even entire towns from Tuscaloosa to Bristol, Va.
Concord, a small town outside Birmingham, Ala., was so devastated that authorities closed it down to keep out the curious. Derrick Keef was on a scavenger hunt for his most priceless possessions after a tornado obliterated his Concord house. His guns were in the ruins of a neighbor's home. A Christmas heirloom shared space in a ditch with broken glass and jagged nails. And his 7-year-old son's bike — one of the few toys he could salvage — was pinned under a car a block away.
"I've been going from lot to lot finding stuff," he said as he rifled through debris, in search of a family photo album. "It's like CSI."
Some of the worst damage was in Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000 that is home to the University of Alabama. The storms destroyed the city's emergency management center, so the school's stadium was turned into a makeshift one.
Hundreds of people walked in a long, slow procession down Tuscaloosa's main four-lane drag. Some shot pictures and videos of what had been a bustling community. Others came to search the wreckage of their homes.
Seventy-three-year-old Frank Frierson sat on a porch and marveled at the damage.
"It was God up there letting us now that he is the boss, what he could tear up and what he could destroy," he said.