VILONIA, Ark. (AP) – By air and on foot, President Barack Obama was getting an up close and personal look Wednesday at Arkansas communities devastated by recent deadly tornadoes during a quick visit with political implications for the state.
In his first visit here as president, Obama also planned to meet with grieving families that lost loved ones, local officials and emergency personnel. Fifteen people were killed in an April 27 tornado outbreak near Little Rock that destroyed hundreds of homes.
The president stopped in Arkansas en route to California on a three-day trip to raise money for the Democratic Party, accept an award from a foundation created by movie director Steven Spielberg and discuss his energy policy.
Surveying the path of destruction by helicopter, Obama flew over a central Arkansas subdivision of short cul-de-sacs that was destroyed, the still-visible rubble evidence of the random but surgical devastation a tornado can wreak.
Obama’s aerial tour was to include the city of Mayflower, damage surrounding Interstate 40 and rural Faulkner County, along with Vilonia, a small city about 30 miles north of Little Rock that suffered the most extensive damage from the storms.
In Vilonia, Obama was to take a walking tour of Parkwood Meadows, where just six of its 56 homes have any part still standing. He also was to meet at City Hall with families, first responders and recovery workers.
Obama was accompanied by Gov. Mike Beebe, Sen. Mark Pryor and Rep. Tim Griffin.
Pryor is running for a third term against Republican Rep. Tom Cotton in one of the most expensive and closely watched Senate races in the country. Neither faces an opponent in the May 20 primary.
Pryor’s willingness to appear with Obama contrasts with other Democrats in difficult races who have chosen to keep their distance from the president. Obama lost Arkansas in the 2008 and 2012 elections, and polls show he remains deeply unpopular in the state.
Republicans have made major gains in Arkansas over the past two elections by tying Democrats to Obama and his policies, particularly the federal health care law. The GOP controls both chambers of the state Legislature and holds all but one of its House and Senate seats in Washington.
Former President Bill Clinton and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson visited the storm-damaged communities of Mayflower and Vilonia on Sunday, and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate visited the day after the storm hit.
The Obama administration has designated four Arkansas counties as major disaster areas because of the storm damage. The National Weather Service has said the twister had winds reaching 166 mph to 200 mph.
The severe weather that hit Arkansas was part of a violent storm system that killed at least 35 across the Plains and South.
Obama’s visit comes a day after his administration released a new report on climate change that attributed severe weather such as hurricanes and droughts to global warming. The report, however, states that the effect of climate change on the intensity or frequency of tornadoes is uncertain, and scientists are unsure whether climate change has played a role in recent erratic patterns of tornado activity.
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