TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Expressing amazement at the destruction 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 president has promised full federal cooperation in disaster relief efforts. "We're going to make sure you're not forgotten," Obama said as he and first lady Michelle Obama walked the streets of a reeling neighborhood. He said that although nothing could be done for the many who were killed — "they're alongside God at this point" — Obama assured support for resilient survivors.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent personnel to Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Obama offered comfort and help in a role he and presidents before him have had to assume time and again in moments of crisis. "It is heartbreaking," he said, standing under a sunny sky that was a stark contrast to the wreckage and bleakness around him.
As he traveled through Tuscaloosa, Obama 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 back.
Minutes after Obama toured Tuscaloosa's ravaged Alberta neighborhood, a group of volunteers waved down rescue workers and breathlessly told them they had discovered survivors in an apartment building nearby.
Paramedics raced to the scene and climbed over debris to reach the building, where just one of the four apartments was intact. Inside they found a family — two parents and a teenage girl with cerebral palsy who relies on crutches.
Her mother didn't think she could get down the stairs.
The mother, Millie, who would not give her last name, said they stayed in the house because they didn't know where else to go.
They were helped out of the apartment and onto the street where Obama's motorcade had passed just minutes earlier.
The storms have killed at least 329 people, 238 in Alabama. Obama has stepped into the role of national consoler in chief before, including after the shooting of Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords earlier this year, but he has not had to deal with the scope of such community obliteration until now.
"What's amazing is when something like this happens folks forget all their petty differences," said the president after spending time talking to Ala. Gov. Robert Bentley and Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox. "When we're confronted by the awesome power of nature and reminded that all we have is each other."
Maddox called the storms "a humanitarian crisis" for his city of more than 83,000. He said he had originally told federal emergency officials his city was a disaster. But now, he said, "I would classify it as a nightmare."
Maddox said his city would rebuild in a way that would give the president a story of pride he would tell all over the nation.
Information from the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.