BEAUREGARD – President Donald Trump signed Bibles, shook hands with volunteers, hugged survivors and praised emergency responders as he expressed sorrow and support in the community most devastated by a tornado last Sunday that claimed 23 lives.
Stopping and visiting inside Providence Baptist Church, one of this week’s primary gathering spots for survivors, families of victims and emergency responders working within the worst of the disaster zone, Trump praised those contributing to recovery and pledged his continued support.
Anxious to get here
“We couldn't get here fast enough,” Trump said.
“I wanted to come the day it happened,” he said, adding that Gov. Kay Ivey had asked him to wait, likely for security reasons and the inability to spare resources.
First Lady Melania Trump and son Barron joined Trump for the visit, and other dignitaries visiting included U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby and Congressman Mike Rogers. Several local officials were on hand to greet them, including Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones and Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller, among others.
One of the most notable moments of their visit came when the president stopped his motorcade and he and the first lady got out to pay respects in front of 23 crosses lining the road, one cross dedicated to each victim killed.
The Trumps paused for a moment of silence in front of each of the 23 crosses.
“That’s just awesome,” said one woman in Beauregard, almost in tears. “There is nothing like the power of the cross.”
Marine One in Auburn
The president arrived on Air Force One at Fort Benning, Georgia, late Friday morning, then boarded Marine One helicopter for the flight to Auburn University Regional Airport. From there, the entourage motorcade passed numerous roadblocks and closed streets that halted traffic because of security concerns.
Hundreds of locals gathered in small and large groups alike along the route, waving American flags and holding up banners welcoming the president and first lady.
Earlier in the day at Beauregard High School, a large banner lay extended on tables as local residents filed in one after another to sign it with messages to Trump, mostly thanking him for his support and him thinking enough of Lee County to visit.
“Thank you, President Trump, for coming to Beauregard and helping our community’s time of need,” wrote Laura and Roger Allen of Beauregard.
“Thank you for coming and giving a helping hand to the ones who lost their life,” wrote a young boy named Michael.
Why it matters
The visits by federal officials are intended to bring attention to the area for increased financial assistance, and to learn lessons from the tragedy that can assist in saving lives in future threats, several of them have stated.
The EF-4 tornado that struck Beauregard and Smiths Station last Sunday brought with it 170 mph winds that leveled large swaths of its 70-mile-long, up to a mile-wide path, which ranged from Macon County east into Georgia.
Four tornadoes in all struck that day as part of what weather officials called an outbreak. It was the worst tornado disaster in Alabama since more than 200 were killed in a 2011 outbreak.
Trump, a Republican well supported in conservative Alabama, heard cheers throughout his visit.
Chants of "USA!" broke out as Trump prepared to depart Providence Baptist Church.
Similar chants were heard from other groups along the way, including elementary school children who lined the banks outside Southview Elementary School in Opelika waving flags and cheering as the motorcade passed.
Firefighters on standby duty at Beauregard High School were along the route from Auburn and Opelika fire departments, and dozens of law enforcement agencies from around the state were there to assist along the motorcade route.
Many of them have served security details all week.
Trump shared high praise for Emergency Management Agency workers and all of the first responders who answered the call to help this week.
Sheriff Jones, who himself has received repeated praise this week for his steady leadership in the field, commented earlier on the local appreciation for all of the assistance and the donations from so many, both from home and afar.
“It’s simply been amazing,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.