LITTLE ROCK — In his first trip to the state since taking office, President Barack Obama on Wednesday toured areas of central Arkansas devastated by last week’s EF4 tornado and said he is impressed with the way communities responded.
“Folks here are tough,” Obama said while visiting the Parkwood Meadows subdivision of Vilonia, where dozens of houses were leveled. “They look out for each another. That’s been clear over this past week.”
The president said he was inspired by the attitudes of the volunteers, rescue workers and family members of tornado victims he met Wednesday, including one volunteer who told him, “We just say a prayer and get to work.”
“A lot of work remains to be done, but I’m here to remind you that you’re not in this alone,” Obama said.
U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., invited Obama to come to Arkansas to view the destruction caused by the April 27 tornado, which claimed at least 15 lives. The tornado occurred two days after the third anniversary of a 2011 tornado that killed four people and leveled parts of Vilonia.
Obama flew into the state on Air Force One and landed at 12:34 p.m. at Little Rock Air Force Base, where Pryor, U.S. Rep Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, Gov. Mike Beebe, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola and the base’s commander, Col. Patrick Rhatigan, greeted him.
Obama, Pryor, Griffin and Beebe then boarded Marine One and flew over damaged areas in western Pulaski County and the Faulkner County towns of Mayflower and Vilonia.
“We talked about how much damage it did, and how quickly,” Griffin said later in an interview with the Arkansas News Bureau. “In a short time it caused so much damage and so much loss of life.”
Griffin said the group also talked with the president about getting help to all the affected areas and about the response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which issued a disaster declaration for Faulkner County two days after the April 27 tornado and for Pulaski, Randolph and White counties on Monday.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate visited central Arkansas on the day after the tornado, and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson toured damaged areas with former President Bill Clinton on Sunday.
Shortly after 1 p.m. Wednesday, Marine One landed in a field near Vilonia’s public schools, where children and teachers stood outside and cheered. The president talked with school officials, then rode in a motorcade to Vilonia City Hall, passing crowds that stood along Main Street waving and taking photos.
Obama visited privately with first responders, recovery workers and affected families inside Vilonia City Hall. Next, his motorcade traveled to the Parkwood Meadows subdivision.
At the end of a cul-de-sac, the president exited the motorcade along with Pryor, Griffin, Beebe and Vilonia Mayor James Firestone. Wearing a light blue button-down shirt and khaki pants, Obama walked with the group down the street amid piles of debris, battered cars and slabs where homes once stood.
At one point Obama broke away from the others to call to two men in work clothes by a trackhoe, “How are you all doing?”
The president had a conversation with the men, Daniel Cunningham and Jeff Smith, that was mostly out of earshot to reporters, although one of the men was heard saying that his wife and son were in the hospital.
Obama then continued walking down the street.
“How are you guys?” he called to a man and two boys.
“Man, it’s good to see you, sir. We’re glad you’re here,” the man, Daniel Smith, said as he shook the president’s hand.
Obama asked the boys, Gabriel and Garrison Dority, their ages. Gabriel said he was 9 and Garrison said he was 6.
“Where you when all this happened?” Obama asked Smith, who answered that he was at a newly built shelter at Vilonia High School, where about 300 people took shelter on the night of the storm. He pointed out his house, which was in an area where some houses still had walls standing.
“You guys are one of those that kind of stayed up,” Obama said.
The president made public remarks while standing in the street with Pryor, Griffin, Beebe and Firestone behind him.
“It’s a reminder that as important as possessions are, nothing’s more important than family,” he said. “I could not be more proud of everybody that’s participated in this recovery.”
The motorcade then returned to Vilonia schools, where Obama boarded Marine One and departed at 2:47 p.m.
Pryor said he appreciated the president’s visit and FEMA’s quick response to the disaster. He said Obama was clearly moved by what he saw.
“He saw a lot of destruction, but he also saw the resiliency of the people,” Pryor said. “You can just see it in people’s eyes. They’re determined to rebuild, they’re determined to come back stronger than ever.”
Griffin said the president’s visit sent an important message.
“The challenge with things like this is to make sure it remains a priority as time progresses and attention doesn’t get diverted to some other crisis,” he said. “It sends a signal to charities and the federal government that this is a priority from the top down.”
Beebe praised the response of the president and FEMA to the disaster.
“They’re doing a good job,” he said.
Also Wednesday, Pryor, Griffin and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., announced that the city of Vilonia will receive a $37,073 grant from the Department of Homeland Security’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program to purchase 18 sets of turnout gear for its firefighters.