JOPLIN, Mo. — Face to face with the legions of homeless and the bereaved, President Barack Obama on Sunday toured the apocalyptic landscape left by Missouri’s killer tornado, consoled the community and committed the government to helping rebuild shattered lives.
“We’re not going to stop `til Joplin’s back on its feet,” Obama vowed. A memorial service where Obama spoke punctuated a day of remembrance one week after the disaster, as authorities pressed on with the task of identifying the victims and volunteers combed through wreckage of neighborhoods where nothing was left whole.
The service erupted in cheers when Obama said, “I promise you your country will be there with you every single step of the way,” a pledge he extended to all parts of the nation raked by violent storms this season.
The Joplin tornado was the worst to hit the United States in decades, leaving more than 130 dead and hundreds more injured. Thirty-nine people remain unaccounted for. There are four more people whom family members have reported as deceased, but those deaths haven’t been officially confirmed.
Air Force One flew over a massive swath of brown – a land of flattened houses and stripped trees – on its approach to Joplin. On the ground, the destruction was even more stark and complete. Obama confronted painful sights at every turn and said nothing in his life measured up to what he saw this day.
Yet he spoke, too, of redemptive moments, the stoicism of the community and tales of plain luck. He told a story of a man he talked to who had taken a chicken pot pie out of the oven, heard the storm was coming, hid in a closet and “came out without a scratch.” Obama celebrated the spirit of volunteers who have flocked to Joplin to help, the pickup truck owners who ferried people to the hospital and the citizens who lined up for hours to donate blood to people they don’t know.
“You’ve demonstrated a simple truth,” he told the service, “that amid heartbreak and tragedy no one is a stranger. Everybody is a brother. Everybody is a sister. We can all love one another.”
The crowd of hundreds at the service reflected a community in the midst of rebuilding: people in shorts and baseball caps, and plenty of babies who occasionally burst out crying. The president talked over the screeching until a baby was hurried out by the mother.
Obama got a notably warm reception in this conservative part of Missouri. His remarks were tailored for a religious service, with quotes from scripture, references to the love that binds people to each other, and comments on the essential goodness of humanity. The stories of the storm lead us to “put aside our petty grievances,” the president said. “There are heroes all around us, all the time. So, in the wake of this tragedy, let us live up to their example: to make each day count.”
Known for his cool, even-tempered demeanor, Obama offered his own brand of comforting: eloquent words, plentiful handshakes, some hugs, pats on the heads of children, offers of “God bless you.” Not for him the raw emotion Americans saw in his predecessors George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.
Before the service, Obama’s motorcade pulled into a neighborhood where downed trees cleaved open houses, roofs were stripped or blown off, cars were cratered and splintered wood was everywhere. He saw nothing intact, but rather small domestic sights – a view into a room with a TV still in place, a recliner sitting amid rubble, a washer-dryer standing next to a decimated house. American flags were planted here and there in the mess.
“Sorry for your loss,” Obama told an anguished woman, hugging her twice as they talked. Another woman told him that her uncle lives up the road – he survived but his house did not. “Tell your uncle we’re praying for him,” the president said.
To those working at the scene, the president said: “We appreciate everything you guys are doing. God bless you.” One volunteer told him that people were coming in from other states to help in any way they could.
“This is not just your tragedy,” Obama said. “This is a national tragedy, and that means there will be a national response.” He said: “We are going to be here long after the cameras leave.”
Hours after Obama’s speech – at 5:41 p.m. Central time, to mark the first report of the tornado – hundreds stood in Joplin’s Cunningham Park, in between wrecked cars and twisted poles, for a moment of silence.
Many in the crowd wore white T-shirts emblazoned, “Joplin’s Heart Will Sing Again.”
“We will rebuild Joplin,” City Manager Mark Rohr told the crowd. “You have my word on it.”
Obama returned to the U.S. on Saturday from a six-day European tour of Ireland, Britain, France and Poland. After days of focusing on the U.S. relationship with the rest of the world, Sunday was about an even more critical connection: his own, with the American people.
Consoling his fellow Americans is a task Obama has had to assume with increasing frequency of late: after the mass shooting in Arizona in January in which Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was injured; when tornadoes struck Tuscaloosa, Ala., last month; and, more recently, when flooding from the Mississippi inundated parts of Memphis, Tenn.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and local clergy, some of whose churches were ravaged, spoke at the service. Some people said it will help them grieve and move forward with rebuilding.
“You need to talk about it,” said Dorothy Iwan, 67, whose granddaughter was caught in the storm but uninjured. “You need to process it. You need to know people are behind you.”