AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — President Donald Trump surveyed damage on Friday from a deadly tornado that devastated a small Alabama town, killing nearly two dozen people.
Trump and first lady Melania Trump, flew south to Georgia and then took a helicopter to Alabama, landing at a regional airport in Auburn. The Trumps greeted people awaiting their arrival before departing by motorcade.
The president was expected to tour rural Lee County in eastern Alabama, where 23 people died Sunday in a massive EF4 tornado that carved a path of destruction nearly a mile wide with 170 mph (270 kph) winds. Air Force One first landed at a military base along the Georgia border, where Trump boarded a helicopter for an aerial tour of some of the damage.
It was one of at least 38 tornadoes confirmed to have touched down across the Southeast in a deadly weekend outbreak.
As he left Washington, Trump said he expected to meet with Gov. Kay Ivey and people who “got hit very hard by the tornadoes.” He also planned to thank first responders.
Trump has said he’s instructed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to give Alabama “the A Plus treatment” as the state recovers.
The Alabama damage was officially deemed a disaster on Tuesday, with Trump ordering federal aid to supplement ongoing state and local recovery efforts.
Ivey has also signed a disaster assistance agreement with FEMA and ordered state flags flown at half-staff until sunset Sunday.
The Beauregard, Alabama tornado was the deadliest to hit the U.S. since May 2013, when an EF5 twister killed 24 people in Moore, Oklahoma.
The dead included four children and a couple in their 80s, with 10 victims belonging to a single extended family. Several people in Georgia were also injured by twisters that also extended to Florida and South Carolina, according to the National Weather Service.
Trump had said earlier this week that the country was “sending our love and prayers to the incredible people of Alabama” and that “whatever we can do, we’re doing.” He was traveling to politically friendly territory for him: Alabama supported Trump by a wide margin in the 2016 presidential election.
The area where the tornado struck is generally Trump country: He carried about 60 percent of the Lee County vote in 2016, and blue Trump flags flying outside homes are a frequent sight in Beauregard.
Standing amid bricks and lumber that used to be her mother’s home, Renee Frazier waved at Trump’s helicopter as it passed overhead during an aerial tour of the destruction. Minutes before, she was arguing with relatives who opposed Trump’s visit, calling it more about politics than compassion.
“I want the president here to see what happened to my mom’s house,” she said. “I want him right here on this land because my mom is about love and unity.”
Just down the road, where several people died, Trump supporter Bobby Spann said he hoped the president learned “how to be a Southerner, and how to respect people” during his brief visit.
Spann, 63, said he also hoped Trump realizes how much help is needed. The roof of Spann’s mobile home was partially peeled away.
“Houses need to be replaced. You can’t help the dead folks, but you can try to help the ones that’s still living,” said Spann, chewing on a yellowroot twig.
Trump’s reaction to natural disasters at times has seemed to vary with the level of political support he’s received from the affected region.
In the months after wildfires ripped through California, Trump threatened to cut off federal aid unless the state embraced forest management policies he championed.
He also engaged in a sustained back-and-forth with lawmakers from hurricane-whipped Puerto Rico, repeatedly blaming the territory for its problems and noting how much money recovery efforts had cost the federal government.
The administration at one point considered redirecting disaster aid from places like Puerto Rico and California to pay for the president’s long-promised border wall. The administration ultimately chose to target other sources of federal dollars.
Trump had already been scheduled to fly south Friday for a weekend at his private Mar-a-Lago club and will be heading there after the tour.
Associated Press writers Jay Reeves in Beauregard, Alabama, Jonathan Lemire in New York and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.