GREENSBURG, Kan. - President Bush sought to lift spirits yesterday in the ruins of a killer tornado, dishing out hugs while stepping through the rubble of what had been a close-knit town of 1,400.
The president said he came to Kansas to tour the wreckage in the hopes that he could "touch somebody's soul by representing our country."
"A lot of us have seen the pictures about what happened here, and pictures don't do it justice," said Bush, standing in the street in front of a brick one-story home that now has no roof. "There is a lot of destruction. Fortunately, a lot of folks had basements here in this part of the world and lived to see another day. Unfortunately, too many died."
On a day that alternated between rain and sun, Bush got his first look from a helicopter that hovered over the ruins of the southwest Kansas town that was flattened Friday night. The twister killed at least 11 people. It was the most punishing tornado to hit the United States in years.
On a short ride into town after his aerial tour, Bush got a rundown of the damage and the recovery from city administrator Steve Hewitt and Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. She and the White House had a spat a day ago - apparently now resolved - over whether National Guard deployments to Iraq had hampered the government's ability to respond here.
The president then went by foot down streets now little more than a snarled mess of mud, wood, glass and wires. Roaring at up to 205 m.p.h. and spanning 1.7 miles, the twister destroyed an estimated 95 percent of the town. Gone are almost every building, including churches, City Hall, and the hospital.
Bush already had ordered emergency aid for the people, business and governments in the Greensburg area. His trip was about delivering something else - presidential empathy.
At one point, Bush stopped at a tractor dealership, the building gutted and its expensive plows mangled. It had been a major employer in town, and the president freely dished out hugs.
The surrounding neighborhood revealed a car stuck tail-first out of the top of a house. Trees were ripped of all limbs, looking like mere stakes in the ground. A spray-painted sign said politely: "Please pardon our mess."
The president ambled down the road to a house with no roof, almost slipping as he picked his way across a chunk of metal on the lawn. He briefly grabbed a chain saw, ripping it into action for the cameras and other media that accompanied him.
"How are you all?" Bush asked as he moved among residents. "Stylish-looking hat," he joked to a man in a green fedora.
The president spent about 20 minutes at a second house, where he posed for photos and listened to survivors.
It was there that he addressed reporters for his only public words of the day. For his backdrop, a yellow crane in the home's driveway suspended an American flag while the trees in the front lawn had metal and plastic debris - including a giant upside-down tool box - wedged into what remained of their branches.