BEAUREGARD, Ala. -- Standing near the slab that's all that is left of one family's garage, President Donald Trump on Friday surveyed the devastation wrought by a powerful tornado that ripped through a rural Alabama town, uprooting trees, tearing homes from their foundations and killing nearly two dozen people.
"We saw things that you wouldn't believe," said Trump, overlooking a debris field strewn with branches and other wreckage in Beauregard, which bore the brunt of Sunday's storm. Mangled metal siding, wood planks, piping and electric wires lay strewn on the ground, along with remnants of everyday life: clothing, a sofa, a bottle of Lysol cleaner and a welcome mat encrusted with dirt.
Trump and the first lady spent the afternoon meeting with survivors, victims' families and volunteers trying to rebuild after the massive tornado carved a path of destruction nearly a mile wide, killing 23 people, including four children and a couple in their 80s, with ten victims belonging to a single extended family.
The trip was a familiar one for Trump, who, now in the third year of his presidency, has traveled to the sites of numerous disasters and tragedies, including hurricanes, shootings and wildfires.
The day began with an aerial survey of the area by helicopter, which flew over swaths of land where trees had been flattened. Trump and his wife, Melania, also visited a church serving as a makeshift disaster relief center for survivors. He later observed a moment of silence before white wooden crosses commemorating each of the victims.
Head bowed, Trump and his wife held hands as they paused in front of each of the markers. Trump shook his head as he stood in front of one, which had been decorated with a tiny pair of children's sneakers.
Trump has, at times, struggled with his role as consoler-in-chief during trips to survey damage and meet with tragedy victims. He memorably tossed paper towels into a crowd as he surveyed damage following hurricanes in Puerto Rico — a move that some saw as inappropriate given the circumstances — and marveled at a yacht that floodwaters had deposited on a family's property during a trip to the Carolinas.
"At least you got a nice boat out of the deal," Trump told the family. He was caught on camera telling a person to whom he had just handed food to "have a good time."
This time, however, Trump appeared to avoid any such distractions aside from some hubbub caused by his decision to sign Bibles, which Providence Baptist Church had been distributing, along with clothing and other supplies, including diapers, toiletries and personal care products.
Before signing autographs or posing for photos with the volunteers there, Trump thanked law enforcement officials and other first responders, as well as Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is assisting state and local response efforts.
"I wanted to come the day it happened," he said, adding that Gov. Kay Ivey had asked him to wait.
Before leaving the church, Trump posed for a photograph with a fifth-grade volunteer and signed the child's Bible, said Ada Ingram, a local volunteer. Ingram said the president also signed her sister's Bible.
The pastor, Rusty Sowell, said the president's visit was uplifting and will help bring attention to a community that will need a long time to recover.
"This is a marathon, not a sprint," Sowell said.
Earlier, Trump spent time with three families who lost loved ones, hearing their stories and dispensing hugs. He also met privately with survivors and family members, including a woman mourning the loss of 10 relatives.
"What they've been through is incredible," Trump said after emerging from the meeting.
Before Trump arrived in Beauregard, Renee Frazier stood amid bricks and lumber that used to be her mother's home and waved as the helicopter carrying Trump passed overhead. Minutes before, Frazier, whose mother survived the tornado, had been arguing with relatives who opposed Trump's visit, calling it more about politics than compassion.
"I want the president here to see what happened to my mom's house," she said. "I want him right here on this land because my mom is about love and unity."
Down the road, where several people died, Trump supporter Bobby Spann said he hoped the president had learned "how to be a Southerner and how to respect people" during his brief visit.
Spann said he also hoped Trump realized how much help is needed.
"Houses need to be replaced. You can't help the dead folks, but you can try to help the ones that's still living," said Spann, chewing on a yellowroot twig. The tornado had partially peeled away the roof of Spann's mobile home.
Trump had said before the visit that he'd instructed FEMA to give Alabama "the A Plus treatment" as it recovers — rhetoric that stood in contrast to Trump's response to disasters on less politically friendly territory. Alabama supported Trump by a wide margin in the 2016 presidential election, and he carried about 60 percent of the vote in Lee County, where Beauregard is located. Blue Trump flags flying outside homes are a frequent sight in the town, and many were seen waving Friday.
In the months after wildfires scorched California, a Democrat-led state that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, Trump threatened to cut off federal aid unless the state embraced forest management policies he championed.
He also engaged in a sustained back-and-forth with lawmakers from hurricane-whipped Puerto Rico, whose pro-statehood governor identifies as a Democrat. Trump repeatedly blamed the U.S. territory for its problems and noted how much money recovery efforts had cost the federal government.
The administration also considered redirecting disaster aid from those places to pay for Trump's long-promised border wall but ultimately decided to target other funding sources.
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.
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