OSO, Wash. - Swooping over a landscape of unspeakable sadness and death, President Obama took an aerial tour Tuesday of the place where more than three dozen people perished in a mudslide last month. He pledged a nation's solidarity with those who are enduring "unimaginable pain and difficulty" in the aftermath of the destruction.
"We're going to be strong right alongside you," Obama promised the people whose lives were upended when a wall of mud and water swept away the hillside March 22 and took with it at least 41 lives and dozens of homes.
Obama first boarded a helicopter to survey the awful scene.
Evidence of the mudslide's power was everywhere: trees ripped from the ground, a highway paved with mud and debris, a river's course altered. And in the midst of the awful tableau, an American flag flying at half-staff.
Even as the president flew overhead, the search for bodies continued below. Two people were still listed as missing.
Back on the ground, the president gathered at a community chapel in the small town of Oso, about an hour northeast of Seattle, to mourn with families of the victims. He met separately with emergency responders before speaking in a small brick firehouse about all he had seen and heard on a clear, sunny afternoon.
"The families that I met with showed incredible strength and grace through unimaginable pain and difficulty," Obama said. Then he offered them a promise.
"The whole country's thinking about you, and we're going to make sure that we're there every step of the way as we go through the grieving, the mourning, the recovery," he said.
Obama said few Americans had heard of the tightknit community of Oso before the tragedy, but in the past month "we've all been inspired by the incredible way that the community has come together."
Firefighter coats hung on the firehouse walls as Obama spoke, with homemade signs above them reading: "We (Heart) Oso." "Thank you Oso." "Oso Proud."
Brande Taylor, whose boyfriend volunteered to work on the mudslide debris field, was glad the president made the effort to visit this rural outpost.
"It is a small community. It's little. It's not huge on the map. But there's still people here who need help, that need the support," said Taylor, who stood near the firehouse. "And they need to know the president is here to support and to help them rebuild their lives."
Kellie Perkins, who lives in Oso, said Obama's visit would help families who have lost so much begin to heal.
"They don't now have houses any more, they don't have anything they own, their friends or relatives are dead," she said. "I think they need this."