TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Expressing amazement at the destruction around him, President Barack Obama on Friday stepped through the wreckage left by rampaging tornadoes and pledged help to those who survived but lost their homes in a terrifying flash.
The destruction was everywhere: flattened buildings, snapped trees, collapsed car washes and heaps of rubble, twisted metal and overturned cars. Said the president: "I've never seen devastation like this."
"We're going to make sure you're not forgotten," Obama said as he and first lady Michelle Obama walked the streets of a reeling neighborhood. He said that although nothing could be done for the many who were killed -- "they're alongside God at this point" -- Obama assured support for resilient survivors.
The death toll stood Friday night at 238. Gov. Robert Bentley said 1,700 were injured.
Hurrying to Alabama, Obama offered comfort and help in a role he and presidents before him have had to assume in moments of crisis. "It is heartbreaking," he said, standing under a sunny sky that was a stark contrast to the wreckage and bleakness around him.
As Obama stepped off a plane at the airport in hard-hit Tuscaloosa, rescuers and survivors combed the remains of neighborhoods pulverized by Wednesday's outbreak that killed at least 329 across seven states. In one of its first official assessments of the tornadoes' strength, the National Weather Service gave the worst possible rating to one that raked Mississippi, saying it was the strongest to hit the state since 1966.
With the confirmation of more deaths by state officials, Wednesday's outbreak surpassed a deadly series of tornadoes in 1974 to become the deadliest day for twisters since 332 people died in March 1932. The storm eight decades ago was also in Alabama.
As he traveled throughout Tuscaloosa, Obama absorbed the scenes of a community deeply deformed by the twisters, with trees uprooted and houses demolished. One young man told Obama he saw debris lifting up all around him, yet he emerged with only cuts and bruises. "It's a blessing you are here," the president said back.
Obama has stepped into the role of national consoler in chief before, including after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in January, but he has not had to deal with such community obliteration until now.
"What's amazing is when something like this happens folks forget all their petty differences," Obama said after talking to the state's governor and Tuscaloosa's mayor. "And we're reminded that all we have is each other."