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TUSCALOOSA — Saying he’d never “seen devastation like this,” President Obama Friday pledged “maximum federal help” to victims of the Tuscaloosa, Ala., tornado.

Obama, flanked by Gov. Robert Bentley, Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, Rep. Ike Sewell and Mayors William Bell of Birmingham and Walt Maddox of Tuscaloosa, drove through the streets of the university town, stopping in the Alberta neighborhood for 20 minutes to examine the devastation.

Obama left his vehicle and approached four people combing through the rubble. He promised “maximum federal help.”

“We’ve never seen devastation like this,” Obama said.

Obama also stopped just outside the city limits at Holt Elementary School, which was severely damaged and turned into a distribution center for aid, where he talked with survivors and aid workers and first lady Michelle Obama hugged one of the survivors.

Obama saw toppled trees, topless buildings and ruined homes, with the strong smell of gas permeating the streets.

Tuscaloosa, a university city of more than 93,000 people, was devastated by a massive tornado Wednesday that officials said carved a 7-mile-long, 1-mile-wide swath with winds topping 200 mph.

State and federal authorities mobilized to clean up and rebuild, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency dispatching water, food packs, infant kits and tents to disaster areas.

“Our hearts go out to all those who have been affected by this devastation and we commend the heroic efforts of those who have been working tirelessly to respond to this disaster,” Obama said in a statement Thursday.

With 36 confirmed deaths and people still missing in Tuscaloosa, the death toll could top that of a 1904 twister that killed 36 and one in 1932 that left 37 dead, The Tuscaloosa News reported.

By Friday, nearly 300 people throughout the South had been confirmed dead. At least 204 people in Alabama, 38 in Mississippi, 34 in Tennessee, 15 in Georgia, seven in Virginia and one in Kentucky died in the storms.

Bentley, who toured his state by helicopter with federal officials Thursday, declared Alabama “a major, major disaster” and said the state would “have to have help from the federal government in order to get through this in an expeditious way.”

Obama declared Alabama a major disaster area and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts, the White House said Thursday.

Thousands of National Guard troops were mobilized to help clean up, and non-profit and religious and spiritual organizations, along with fraternities, sororities and volunteer groups, rushed to help hard-hit communities prepare meals and provide other aid for people who were newly homeless, officials said.

An estimated 1 million homes and businesses were without power Friday.

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