JOPLIN, Mo. —On his first day back in the U.S. following a six-day diplomatic tour of Europe, President Obama made a beeline for Joplin, where he offered comfort and hope to a grief-stricken city.
"There is no doubt in my mind that Joplin will rebuild," Obama said at a memorial service at Missouri Southern State University. "As president, I can tell you that your country will be there with you every single step of the way."
A capacity crowd of 2,000 greeted the president with a standing ovation and cheered him repeatedly throughout his 10-minute address.
His remarks and walking tour of some of the city's hardest-hit neighborhoods came on the one-week anniversary of the EF-5 tornado that claimed at least 142 lives.
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"The cameras may leave. The spotlight may shift," Obama said. "But we will be with you every step of the way until Joplin is restored and this community is back on its feet."
Residents said they were thrilled that the president flew to their city and said his visit boosted morale.
"It's nice to know he has our back," said Angela Borchardt, 24. "That's what I think the people of Joplin need to hear. He's absolutely trying to take care of us at a time everything we have is gone."
Nathan Gideon, 29, described the president's visit as "awesome. We're not alone. After that devastation, that's what everyone feels."
Stephanie Kerby said she appreciated the president's visit on top of all the help from so many others. "Hopefully his attention will bring some more ... aid," she said.
Obama arrived shortly after noon with FEMA administrator Craig Fugate in tow. He was joined by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and Sen. Claire McCaskill for a motorcade tour that zipped directly from the regional airport to the 22nd & Kentucky streets neighborhood.
There, Obama was able to look to the east for a panoramic view of the storm's devastating path.
He showed little emotion, but when he stopped to talk to reporters for the first time, he admitted the damage was every bit as bad as he expected.
He compared Joplin with Tuscaloosa, Ala., portions of which were flatted by a tornado last month. He said the destruction in Alabama was the worst he had ever seen — until he arrived in Joplin.
"It is just as heartbreaking and in some ways more devastating," Obama said.
As he spoke, the revving of chain saws could be heard in the background. Trees and poles bent east in deference to the tornado's 200 mph winds. Many homes, their roofs torn away, were covered with blue tarps.
The road back, Obama noted, will be a "tough, long slog."
Later, at the memorial service, ministers, choirs and Nixon offered words of comfort.
Nixon insisted that the people of Missouri, known for their stubbornness and self-reliance, "were born for this mission."
He said no storm or fire can stop Missourians "once we have set our resolve" and that the notion of people helping their neighbors had come to see new meaning in the storm's wake.
The Rev. Aaron Brown, who saw his St. Paul's United Methodist Church converted into a triage center, told the audience that it may appear at times that death triumphed in Joplin. But, he insisted, it did not.
"Death doesn't win — ever," he said. "Even when you think it does. Even if it looks like death wins, it doesn't. Life wins."
Jesus, he added, "took our punch for us."
Obama told the audience that no one knows why people are tested when they are. "These things are beyond our power to control," he said.
But, he said, the people of Joplin are not powerless in the face of such adversity. In fact, they have direct control over how they respond.
He talked about Joplin heroes such as Christopher Lucas, a 26-year-old father of two daughters who had a third child on the way. Lucas was working as a manager at Pizza Hut when the storm loomed and helped usher his fellow employees into a walk-in freezer.
As the tornado bore down, Lucas scrounged around the store for something to tie the freezer door closed. Lucas, Obama said, found a cord, tied it to the door's outside handle and wrapped the other end around his arm. Obama said he held the door closed "with all his might" until he was "pulled away by the incredible force of the storm" and killed.
Lucas saved more than a dozen people inside the freezer.
"You see," Obama said, "there are heroes all around us, all the time. They walk by us on the sidewalk and sit next to us in class.
"Just as we can't know why tragedy strikes in the first place, we may never fully understand where these men and women find the courage and strength to do what they did."
He ended by reciting words from the spiritual "Amazing Grace," a favorite song of another victim of Joplin.
"'Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come,'" the president intoned. "'Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.'
"May those we lost know peace, and may grace guide the people of Joplin home."