VILONIA, Ark. (AP) — Surveying the remnants of nature's destructive power in the country's midsection, President Barack Obama pledged Wednesday to residents of tornado-ravaged Arkansas communities that their government will stand with them until they finish rebuilding.
Obama said he wanted to visit this small city about a half-hour north of Little Rock to make sure those grieving the loss of loved ones, their homes and treasured possessions know that they will not be forgotten.
"I'm here to make sure that they know and that everybody who's been affected knows that the federal government's going to be right here until we get these communities rebuilt," Obama said after walking through a subdivision in which just six of its 56 homes had any part still standing after storms tore across the state on April 27, killing 15 people.
"When something like this happens to a wonderful community like this one, it happens to all of us," he said.
Obama first surveyed the rubble by air, peering down from the windows of his helicopter onto a subdivision of short cul-de-sacs that was destroyed. The still-visible rubble was evidence of the random but surgical devastation a twister is capable of.
After meeting privately with grieving families, emergency workers and local officials, Obama set out on foot through a section of Vilonia, where residents felt a sense of deja vu. Four people died after a tornado hit Vilonia in 2011.
"This town has seen more than its fair share of tragedy," Obama observed, speaking in front of the wreckage of destroyed homes. The sunny afternoon beneath a nearly cloudless sky was a sharp contrast to the dark storms that struck less than two weeks ago. "But folks here are tough, they look out for one another and that's been especially clear over the past week."
Obama said there is a lot of cleanup and rebuilding that remains to be done to make Vilonia whole again "but I'm here to remind them they're not doing this work alone. Your country's going to be here for you. We're going to support you every step of the way."
"I could not be more impressed by the spirit of the community that is here," he said.
Obama made the first visit of his presidency to Arkansas while opening a three-day trip to California to raise money for the Democratic Party, accept an award from a foundation created by movie director Steven Spielberg and discuss his energy policy.
His quick layover of several hours also has political implications for the state. Among the elected officials accompanying him on the tour was Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, who is seeking re-election to a third term against Republican Rep. Tom Cotton in one of the most expensive and closely watched Senate races in the country. Neither faces an opponent in the May 20 primary.
Obama also was joined by Gov. Mike Beebe and U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin.
Pryor's willingness to appear with Obama contrasts with other Democrats in difficult races who have chosen to keep the president at arm's length. Obama lost Arkansas in the 2008 and 2012 elections and remains deeply unpopular in the state, polls show.
Republicans have made major gains in Arkansas over the past two elections by tying Democrats to Obama and his policies, particularly the federal health care law. The GOP controls both chambers of the state Legislature and holds all but one of its congressional seats.
The Obama administration has designated four Arkansas counties as major disaster areas because of damage from the storm, part of a violent weather system that killed at least 35 people across the Plains and the South. The twister had winds between 166 mph and 200 mph, the National Weather Service said.
Obama visited a day after his administration released a new report on climate change that attributed severe weather such as hurricanes and droughts to global warming. The report, however, says the effect of climate change on the intensity or frequency of tornadoes is uncertain, and scientists are unsure whether climate change has played a role in recent erratic patterns of tornado activity.
The visit also was the second time in recent weeks that Obama has seen up close the force of nature's destructive power. Late last month, he visited Oso, Washington, where more than 40 people were killed by a massive mudslide in March.
Associated Press writer Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this report.