JACKSONVILLE, AR - President Barack Obama has left Arkansas after spending a few hours here this afternoon for a tour of the April 27 tornado destruction.
After Air Force One landed, he was greeted at Little Rock Air Force Base by Base Commander Col. Patrick Rhatigan and then Governor Mike Beebe, U.S. Senator Mark Pryor, 2nd District U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin and Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola.
Minutes later, Obama boarded the presidential helicopter Marine One, along with Gov. Beebe, Sen. Pryor and Rep. Griffin flew over the damaged areas. The flight traveled over western Pulaski County and Mayflower where there was severe tornado damage. The flight then continued on to Vilonia where Obama surveyed the damage from the air before landing. Beebe, Pryor and Griffin then joined the president as he met with first responders in Vilonia City Hall. President Obama also met privately with families.
Marine One landed at 1:03 p.m. in a field near Vilonia schools where children and teachers stood outside and cheered. The president departed Marine One three minutes later. Obama was greeted by a marine in full dress. He saluted and the president talked with staff members. He then got into a black SUV and joined the motorcade. People gathered all along Main Street in Vilonia, waving to Obama and taking pictures and video with their cameras. Some children held blue Obama-Biden campaign signs near the Vilonia Fire Department as the motorcade passed. Obama arrived at Vilonia City Hall at 1:11 p.m. Where he was scheduled to meet privately with first responders.
While Pres. Obama visited with first responders inside Vilonia City Hall, a group of more than 100 gathered at the nearby Vilonia Fire Station, where rescuers scrambled to aid victims on the night of the April 27 storm. The night of the storms, the fire station was turned into an operations center where volunteer firefighters from several area agencies gathered briefly and then split up into teams to search the damaged homes and businesses for survivors. At City Hall, that same night, Vilonia Fire Chief Keith Hillman walked from room-to-room, directing rescue crews into the late hours of the morning. On Wednesday at city hall, Pres. Obama visited privately with first responders, families affected by the tornado and recovery workers.
His motorcade waited outside, about a hundred yards from the gathering of residents on Wednesday, nearly all of whom took pictures with their cell phones. Some carried signs and others waited, leaning on cars and standing in the shade of large trees where a flag flew at half-staff.
At 2:14 p.m., the president's motorcade departed from city hall and traveled east on Main St. past more gathered sightseers and residents. The motorcade then turned north on Naylor Rd. and went to the hard-hit Parkwood Meadow subdvision where dozens of houses were leveled. The president passed by slabs where homes once stood just a little more than a week ago. Out front of one demolished home, an American flag flapped in the wind as workers and construction crews paused from their cleanup to wave at the motorcade. Debris piles — some more than 10 feet high — were heaped on the east side of the road. Most were splintered lumber and metal. One included a green child's slide and playground equipment. The motorcade turned into the damaged subdivision and pulled to the end of the cul de sac.
In the subdivision, on one side of the street, some homes were largely unblemished. On the other side, most had been wiped clean to their slabs by the massive storm.
Among the debris a man stood with two boys leaned against his body as the president passed by in a black SUV.
At 2:20 p.m., the president exited the motorcade at the end of the cul de sac along with Gov. Beebe, Sen. Pryor, Congressman Griffin and Vilonia Mayor James Firestone.
Obama stopped and shook hands with Firestone and put his hands on his hips as he listened to the mayor out of earshot of reporters.
The president then walked down the street between piles of debris and destroyed homes. He then talked with Griffin and both gestured to the damage areas and a pile of mangled lumber and metal.
The president then walked down the street with Pryor, Griffin and Beebe listening to Firestone. Obama then broke away from the group and called out to two men in work clothes who stood near a trackhoe amid the debris. “How are you all doing?,” he asked the men. He then shook their hands and talked with them. Most of the conversation was out of earshot of reporters but the president could be heard asking one of the men a question.
“Is anybody else at the hospital?,” he asked. “My wife and my son,” the man replied.
The president then talked for a few minutes with the men out of earshot of reporters before moving on down the street at 2:22 p.m.
"How are you guys?" the president called to a man and two small boys (the same ones from earlier).
The man replied. "Man, it's good to see you sir" as the president shook his hand. "We're glad you're here."
The president talked with the man and the two boys, inquiring as to the boys ages. Six and nine, they replied.
Obama laughed as he continued talking with the man out of earshot of reporters.
At one point, the president could be heard asking the man: "Where were you when all this happened?"
The man replied that he was at a newly built shelter at Vilonia High School, where about 300 people sheltered the night of the storm.
As the president talked with the man and two boys, one of the boys held a white, toy car. The other leaned against the man, and looked up at the president as they talked.
The president then asked the man which house he lived in. The man gestured down the street where some homes still had walls standing.
"You guys are one of those that kind of stayed up," the president said.
Then the president posed for a picture with the man and two boys. All four smiled.
The presidential motorcade left Vilonia around 2:45 and he boarded Marine One minutes later for the return trip to Little Rock Air Force Base where Air Force One was waiting to take him to California for some fundraising events. The president's plane lifted off at 3:10, wrapping up his visit to the Natural State.
See the attached document for comments Pres. Obama made aboard Air Force One while en route to Arkansas.