CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — President Bush, surveying the aftermath of devastating floods during a lightning-quick tour of the Midwest on Thursday, assured residents and rescuers alike that he is listening to their concerns and understands their exhaustion.
"Obviously, to the extent we can help immediately, we will help," said Bush, still mindful of criticism that the government reacted slowly to Hurricane Katrina three years ago.
"You'll come back better," the president said while being briefed by state and local officials. "Sometimes it's hard to see it."
Bush was in Europe when tornadoes hit and heavy rains sent rivers surging over their banks, killing at least 24 people, the majority in Iowa. Flooding forced tens of thousands across six states to flee their homes and washed out millions of acres of prime farm and grazing lands. He made a point to try to show his deep concern while overseas and traveled to Iowa just two days after returning.
Cedar Rapids was submerged in a dirty lake when the Cedar River crested almost 20 feet above flood stage. Now, with the floodwaters having receded, trash was everywhere and businesses and families were trying to determine what could be salvaged.
In Missouri and Illinois along the Mississippi River, the danger was still present — not past.
The river tore through a levee late Wednesday at Winfield, about 50 miles north of St. Louis. A second levee still protected most of the town of 720 residents, but residents were urged to evacuate.
In the 150-resident village of Hamburg, Ill., also north of St. Louis, there was no levee to hold back the Mississippi, and Mayor Jim Fortner said about 50 prisoners were helping dozens of volunteers hastily add 2 to 3 feet to a half-mile wall of sandbags.
The river, expected to continue rising, already had swamped the town's busiest street and significantly damaged seven homes.
"We have the resources and materials, but we need more people," Fortner said.
Bush went on a helicopter tour that revealed an area that, though mud-caked, was beginning to return to normal. The president then visited Iowa City to the south, chatting with employees of a riverside company used as a staging area for volunteers, propping up spirits at a Red Cross emergency shelter and walking to the water's edge in a flooded-out neighborhood.
"I really did want again to congratulate the local folks for showing great compassion, working hard, hugging people and giving people hope," he said.