Obama consoles the town torn down by twister

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His feet barely back on American soil after his 6-day tour of Britain and other European nations, President Barack Obama visited Joplin, Missouri, yesterday to take on the role of consoler-in-chief one week after the town was ravaged by a single monster tornado that killed at least 142 people.

"This is not just your tragedy. This is a national tragedy, and that means there will be a national response," President Obama said as he toured a small section of the ravaged city on foot, shaking hands and hugging survivors waiting outside their obliterated homes, some waving American flags.

"We are going to be here long after the cameras leave. We're not going to stop 'til Joplin's back on its feet," the president vowed. Even as the president approached the tiny Joplin airfield in a plane smaller than the usual Boeing 747, he got a bird's eye view of the six-mile path of damage inflicted by the twister.

After seeing first hand on the ground some of the damage done to this town of 50,000 by the twister that was rated a rare EF5 with winds in excess of 200 MPH, Mr Obama spoke with measured emotion at a public memorial service along with state officials including Jay Nixon, the Governor of Missouri.

"The question that weighs on us at a time like this is, why? Why my town? Why my son?" he said. "We can't know when a terrible storm will strike or where. We can't know why we are tested with the loss of a loved ones or the loss of a home." He said that American should "keep in our prayers the still missing."

Mr Obama is practised in offering words of commiseration in the wake of national tragedies. He notably gave a widely admired speech after the shooting of US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tuscon, Arizona, in January that gave him a quick, if fleeting, polling boost. Just three weeks ago he was in Tuscaloosa similarly to console victims after a swarm of tornados killed 238 across Alabama.

For any president, tragedy can be a moment for evoking national unity and burnishing political standing. That said, the southwest corner of Missouri is not an area that is normally friendly to Democrats. One onlooker was spotted waving a "NOBAMA" sign as the President surveyed the wreckage.

Mr Obama nonetheless received a standing ovation as he took the stage in the cavernous university auditorium. He told the congregation that world leaders at the G8 meeting in France last week came to him and said: "Let the people of Joplin know we are with them, we are thinking about them, we are with them." The President evoked the names of some who died while trying to protect others.

He singled out Christopher Lucas, 26, who tried in vain to keep the door closed on the cold storage room in a Pizza Hut shredded by the tornado. "He held it as long as he could, until he was pulled a way by the incredible force the storm," Mr Obama said. "He died by saving more than a dozen people in that freezer."

Repeating the message that Joplin could count on the country for steadfast help to rebuild, Mr Obama raised loud applause. "We will be with you every step of the way, we will be with you every step of the way...we are not going anywhere."

The memorial service was held on the campus of Missouri Southern university, the same place that the families of teenagers from the now destroyed Joplin High School had gathered last Sunday evening for their graduation ceremony. While most were still inside the university's main theatre when the twister struck some had already left and were driving home and into the path of peril.

This weekend, the family of Will Norton, 18, who was sucked through the sunroof of his father's car after leaving the graduation gathering, said he had been found after a long search. The young man's body was retrieved from a pond close to the road he and his father had been travelling on.

The death toll continues to creep up in Joplin and officials yesterday said that as many as 44 people in the city had still not been accounted for. With much of the city reduced to rubble, it remains impossible for the authorities to say with uncertainty that everyone killed has been found. More than 900 people, most of whom were trying to take shelter in their homes or in shops and petrol stations, were injured, meanwhile.