Quoting from the Bible and stroking the hand of a shaken survivor, President Clinton mourned lives lost to Florida tornadoes and pledged federal help in rebuilding “brick by brick, home by home.”
The president also voiced interest Wednesday in an early warning system that could use existing U.S. satellites to forecast tornadoes.
“Americans are praying for you and pulling for you, and whatever it is within our power to do to help you return to normal lives, we will do,” Clinton told survivors and rescue workers.
A $3 million Labor Department grant for temporarily unemployed Floridians marked the first of millions of dollars in federal aid to the state in response to the twisters that cut through central Florida on Monday killing at least 39 people with winds of up to 210 mph.
Clinton’s helicopter circled three times over the Winter Garden area outside Orlando to view the aftermath: an upended house, its lower half dissolved into a wreck of shards shoved into the ground; an American flag fixed to a stubby pole in the lawn outside a flattened home.
He said his own home state, Arkansas, is too familiar with tornadoes’ random, deadly power.
“No matter how many of these I have seen over the last 20 years, I don’t think anybody can fail to be moved and awestruck by … the lives and the treasures that can be taken away in a matter of just a few seconds,” Clinton said at the destroyed Ponderosa Park Campground.
He stopped to console a trembling Peggy Smith, 65, who lives in Nashville, Tenn., but wintered in her camper at Ponderosa. The RV was destroyed, her neighbors killed and, with a bandage over her bruised left eye, Smith hugged Clinton and thanked him for coming.
“You’ve been through a lot. … Keep your chin up,” the president said, stroking her hand. “I’ve had a lot of black eyes in my life.”
Stanley Adams, 73, sat on a chair outside the rubble that had been his trailer. A pink leash dangled from his belt loop. Despite broken ribs, he told Clinton with delight that his poodle Fifi had survived and was recuperating at the vet. “I’m glad she made it,” Clinton said.
James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the tornadoes’ damage in Florida would be “up in the millions” but he wouldn’t have a dollar estimate for federal aid until next week.
In all, Clinton has declared 34 Florida counties disaster areas.
Addressing a somber assembly of Ponderosa residents and rescuers, Clinton quoted from the book of Isaiah: “The bricks are fallen down, but we will build with you in stones.”