President Barack Obama will travel to the southeastern U.S. Friday to get a personal look at the devastation left behind by violent tornadoes and thunderstorms Wednesday that killed at least 305 people.
Obama will meet with local officials and residents in the town of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where entire neighborhoods were destroyed and at least 36 people were killed, including two students at the University of Alabama.
Alabama sustained the brunt of the devastation from Wednesday's storms. About 2,000 National Guard soldiers have been deployed in the state to assist local emergency crews in the cleanup efforts. Obama signed a declaration late Thursday declaring a disaster in the state, making federal funds available to help residents, businesses and local governments in the recovery.
Earlier Thursday, Obama called the loss of life "heartbreaking," and described the aftermath as "nothing short of catastrophic." He promised the federal government will do everything it can to help the region recover.
The death toll across the region includes 204 in Alabama alone, plus 34 people in Tennessee, 33 in Mississippi, 14 in Georgia and 12 in Arkansas. The other fatalities were spread across Virginia, Louisiana and Kentucky. It was the deadliest tornado outbreak in the United States since 310 people were killed on April 3, 1974.
In some southern U.S. communities, the tornadoes flattened entire neighborhoods, left streets filled with debris, flipped over cars and knocked down trees and power lines, leaving an estimated 1 million people without power.
Emergency crews were searching through ruined homes and toppled trees for survivors. Some residents said they barely escaped the destructive winds by sheltering in bathtubs, closets and basements.
Forecasters received reports of at least 160 tornadoes hitting the region by Wednesday night, some of them thought to be as wide as 1.6 kilometers.
The tornadoes were the second in a wave of severe weather to affect the southern United States this month. A series of storms in early April killed at least 45 people in the region.