April 29, 2011 -- President Obama and the first lady surveyed storm damage and met with families of victims today in Tuscaloosa, Ala., one of the cities hardest hit by this week's outbreak of tornadoes that have left at least 318 people dead across eight states.
"I've never seen devastation like this," Obama said, standing amid the rubble left in the tornadoes' wake. "It is hearbreaking."
Obama spent almost two hours on ground, driving in his motorcade through a hard-hit commercial area to see demolished stores and businesses. He later walked through a residential neighborhood that was littered with mangled cars, tree limbs and personal possessions.
"I want to just make a commitment to the communities here that we are going to do everything we can to help these communities rebuild," Obama said. "Property damage, which is obviously extensive, that's something that we can do something about."
The president declared Alabama a major disaster area Thursday, clearing the way for federal aid to help families who lost homes or businesses and local governments that sustained damage to public property.
Elsewhere across the South, the twisters leveled cities, leaving thousands homeless and more than 1 million people without power. The outages forced two nuclear plants offline and idled production lines at major plants for automakers Toyota and Mercedes and aerospace manufacturers Boeing and Northrop Grumman.
But the storms' bigger toll was its human one.
In Alabama alone, at least 210 people were killed. Mississippi reported 33 fatalities, Tennessee had 34, Georgia at least 15, Virginia had five and Arkansas 14, authorities said. The count, which is already the greatest death toll from a tornado outbreak since 1932, is expected to rise.
"They're alongside God at this point," the president said of the victims. "We can help maybe a little bit with the families dealing with grief of having a lost -- a loved one."
Individual tornadoes usually do not stay on the ground for a very long time. But the National Severe Storms Laboratory says the area may have been hit by a rare single, long-ranging twister that formed in Mississippi and travelled 300 miles to batter Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, southwestern Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia and Kentucky.
If that is true, the twister would be one of the longest-lasting on record, rivaling a 1925 tornado that raged for 219 miles. Early estimates show the tornado was at least an EF4 as it blew through Tuscaloosa.
Five other EF4 tornadoes struck across the region, according to the National Weather Service, including one with estimated winds of 175 mph that occurred in Catoosa County, Georgia, flattening the town of Ringgold and killing at least eight.
Official storm damage assessments indicate the strongest tornado, likely an EF5 with winds of 205 miles per hour, hit Smithville, Miss., Wednesday, leaving a three-mile-long path of destruction that left at least 14 dead and 40 injured.
In total, there were 211 reported tornadoes across 14 states between Wednesday and Thursday mornings, according to NOAA -- a new record for one storm system.
"These were the most intense super-cell thunderstorms that I think anybody who was out there forecasting has ever seen," meteorologist Greg Carbin of the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center told the Associated Press.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox asked people Thursday to stay off the streets and conserve water, and for gawkers to stay away. He said "sightseers" are only getting in the way of emergency crews.
"This is going to be a very, very long process" of cleaning up and rebuilding, he said. "During this time we ask for patience and we ask for prayers."
Alabama officials have identified isolated cases of looting inside damaged communities, including raids at a crippled manufacturing plant in Marion County and theft of prescription drugs from at least one unattended pharmacy.
In Hackleburg, Ala., northwest of Tuscaloosa, authorities say they have run out of body bags for the dead and are in need of portable showers, tents and flashlights.
Maddox said there has been at least one encouraging sign to emerge from the destruction: community unity.
"What's amazing is when something like this happens, folks forget all their petty differences," he said, standing beside President Obama. "When we're confronted by the awesome power of nature and reminded that all we have is each other."
ABC News Radio, Michael S. James, Mike Marusarz, Jessica Hopper and the Associated Press contributed to this report.