President Obama Calls Tornado-Ravaged Joplin, Missouri 'A National Tragedy'

The president will meet with survivors and speak at a memorial service.

By<a href="@stevenportnoy" target="external">STEVEN PORTNOY</a>
May 29, 2011, 12:13 PM

JOPLIN, Mo., May 30, 2011&#151; -- Assuming his role as the nation's pastor today, one week to the day after a tornado tore a gash through the heart of this deeply religious town, President Obama delivered a sermon reflecting on the heroics of those who were killed saving others in the storm.

"It's in these moments, through our actions, that we often see the glimpse of what makes life worth living in the first place," Obama said. "In the face of winds that showed no mercy, no regard for human life ... it was ordinary people, swiftly tested, who said, 'I'm willing to die right now so that someone else might live.'"

In his remarks before some 2,000 Joplin residents on the campus of Missouri Southern State University, the president mentioned two "everyday heroes" -- Dean Wells, a manager at a Home Depot, and Christopher Lucas, a manager at a Pizza Hut.

Both men died saving others: Wells, shepherding people to safety until he was crushed by a collapsing wall, and Lucas, who left the safety of a freezer shielding more than a dozen people to search for a rope to keep the door shut.

"You see, there are heroes all around us, all the time," the president said. "They pass us in the aisle wearing an orange apron. They come to our table at a restaurant and ask us what we'd like to order.

"It's this knowledge -- the knowledge that we are inclined to love one another, that we're inclined to do good, to be good -- that causes us to take heart," Obama said.

Then the president quoted Corinthians:

"You have lived the words of scripture: 'We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed. We are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cut down, but not destroyed.'"

Stirring the crowd to an ovation, the president pledged that the nation's support would continue to this community, even after the media turns away.

"There's no doubt in my mind that Joplin will rebuild," he said. "Your country will be there with you every single step of the way. We're not going anywhere."

Earlier, walking just a handful of devastated blocks typical of the vast wasteland that now makes up so much of this town, Obama said the scene "speaks for itself."

Speaking with locals who stood among the ruins of their homes, the president gave out hugs and handshakes.

"Obviously, it is going to take years to build back," Obama said, as he looked upon the shards that remain of the homes that once stood along Grand and Kentucky avenues.

"This is just not your tragedy," the president said. "This is a national tragedy, and that means there's going to be a national response. We're going to be here long after the cameras leave.

Obama was greeted at the airport by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who gave him a first-hand tour of the incredible destruction he had seen from Air Force One as he flew in to Joplin.

In his shirtsleeves, the president and governor surveyed the damage, both of them shaking hands and exchanging greetings and words of comfort and encouragement with people they met along the way.

The president is making the trip after returning Saturday from a six-day tour of Europe, where he focused on building U.S. relations with world leaders.

As of this afternoon, Missouri officials said 146 sets of remains had been recovered. But they cautioned that is not the death toll, since the tally includes partial remains that, if counted separately, would result in an inflated figure.

As of late today, 87 victims' bodies had been positively identified, with notification given to families by law enforcement. About 40 people were still listed as being "unaccounted-for."

Missouri Department of Public Safety deputy director Andrea Spillars said 50 officers have been working around the clock to notify family members of the status of missing family members with "accuracy and respect, with the hope that healing and mourning can begin."

To avoid mistakes and inaccurate identification Spillars said the identification of victims is being conducted by matching remains with X-rays, dental records and other identifying marks.

With cell service still considered spotty, authorities say they believe many of the missing could be alive, but not in a position to get in touch. However, they caution that many on the list may have been killed in the storm.

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