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Obama Offers Comfort, Aid to Missouri Tornado Victims

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Joplin Rebuilds
Shandie Spencer, right, hugs a volunteer while recovering items from the basement of her destroyed Joplin, Missouri, home, where she was trapped after riding out a massive tornado that passed through the town, killing at least 125 people. Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

May 30 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama traveled yesterday to Joplin, Missouri, where he inspected the damage, comforted the grieving and honored the first responders who aided the victims of a deadly tornado that left a path of destruction across the city a week ago.

“I can promise you, your country will be there with you every step of the way,” the president told area residents at a memorial service on the campus of Missouri Southern State University. “We will be with you every step of the way until Joplin is restored and this community is back on its feet. We’re not going anywhere.”

Obama said that during his six-day, four-nation trip last week to Europe, where he attended the Group of Eight summit, “I had world leaders coming up to me and saying ‘Let the people of Joplin know we are with them; we’re thinking about them; we love them.’”

He acknowledged the “heroes all around us, all the time,” describing individuals who helped others during the storm, the deadliest tornado since 1950, at great risk to themselves. Among those, he said, were “ordinary people, swiftly tested, who said, ‘I’m willing to die right now so that someone else might live.’”

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared yesterday a day of prayer and remembrance and ordered state and national flags flown at half-staff.

Area of Devastation

Before the memorial service, as he toured Joplin accompanied by Nixon, federal officials and first responders, Obama stepped through wood splinters, cement shards, glass, bricks and other debris along Kentucky Street.

“Hello, everybody,” he said to one family, giving a hug to a woman in a pink blouse. In the next block, he encountered Misty Slagle, 43, of Garland, Texas, who with friends and families brought hygiene products, gasoline and other supplies to the needy.

“We appreciate what you guys are doing,” Obama said.

In brief remarks to reporters, Obama described his visit to a similarly destroyed area in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on April 29. He said that on that trip he had not seen wreckage “like that in my lifetime. You come here to Joplin and it is just as heartbreaking and, in some ways, even more devastating.”

Obama met yesterday with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator W. Craig Fugate and local and state officials on coordination of federal aid and recovery efforts in the city of almost 50,000. “This is going to take years to build back,” the president said, calling the process a “tough, long slog.”

29 Still Missing

The twister ripped a six-mile path a quarter-mile wide across southwest Missouri shortly before 6 p.m. on May 22, killing more than 130, according to the Associated Press. More than 900 were injured. The number of people unaccounted for fell to 29 from 44 yesterday, Mike McConnell, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety, said today in an e-mailed statement.

The tornado slammed into St. John’s Regional Medical Center, crushed cars and converted neighborhoods into a prairie of splinters. About a quarter of the city was damaged. Winds in the EF-5 storm exceeded 200 miles per hour, the National Weather Service said.

Damaged or Destroyed

About 8,000 building units, including apartments, were damaged or destroyed, Joplin’s city manager, Mark Rohr, said May 24. The Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce estimates that 300 businesses with about 4,000 employees were affected. Insurers’ losses may reach $3 billion, according to an estimate from catastrophe risk-modeler Eqecat Inc.

There have been 1,314 tornadoes reported in the U.S. in 2011 through May 24, compared with 1,282 in all of 2010, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NOAA has listed the Joplin tornado as the eighth deadliest in U.S. history. The 132 deaths surpass the 116 people killed June 8, 1953, when a twister hit Flint, Michigan, in what had been the largest toll since modern record-keeping began in 1950.

The deadliest tornado in U.S. history was a tornado that swept a 291-mile path across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana on March 18, 1925, killing 695, NOAA said on its website.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roger Runningen in Joplin, Missouri, at rrunningen@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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