Obama Tours Devastation In Joplin, Mo.

President Obama visited Joplin, Mo., on Sunday as the town begins cleaning up after a tornado killed more than 135 people and counting. The president toured the flattened ruin before attending a memorial.

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President Obama went from the capitals of Europe to Joplin, Missouri this weekend. That Midwestern town will be cleaning up for months and rebuilding for years, after a powerful tornado plowed through a week ago, killing more than 135 people.

The president toured the devastated areas before attending a memorial service.

NPRs Wade Goodwyn has this report.

(Soundbite of a music)

WADE GOODWYN: The Performing Arts Center here at Missouri Southern State University was packed with the families of those killed and injured and thousands of their fellow citizens. The first person at the lectern was Father Justin Monaghan, and a more fitting symbol of the horror and miracle that is Joplin, Missouri, could not be found.

St. Marys Catholic Church was directly in the path of the twister. The pastor had not been paying attention to the weather. He first knew something was going badly wrong when he noticed the furniture blowing around the rectory. Monaghan ran to the bathroom and jumped into the bathtub, as the rectory collapsed on top of him. He was so buried inside his little tub that his parishioners had to dig him out.

In his soft Irish brogue, he stood before the gathered, a living miracle.

Father JUSTIN MONAGHAN (Pastor, St. Marys Catholic Church): Heavenly father, we take time to pause, reflect and pray. Amidst the pain and hurt of this devastation, we have no doubt of your presence among us. And with your help, we will put our hands to the plow.

GOODWYN: President Obama was warmly received by a crowd full of emotion. The president began by hailing Joplins heroes, and explained his vision of the common man who responds with uncommon courage when the moment requires. There are heroes all around us, all the time, the president said. They walk by us on the sidewalk and they sit next to us in class. They pass us in the aisle wearing an orange apron. They come to our table at a restaurant and ask us what wed like to order.

President BARACK OBAMA: There was a young man named Christopher Lucas who was 26 years old. Father of two daughters; third daughter on the way. Just like any other night, Christopher was doing his job as manager on duty at Pizza Hut. And then he heard the storm coming.

GOODWYN: The president told how Lucas herded his staff and customers into the freezer. But there was no way to hold the freezer door closed from the inside, so the manager went in search of a rope.

President OBAMA: He made it back just in time, tying a piece of bungee cord to the handle outside, wrapping the other end around his arm, holding the door closed with all his might.

GOODWYN: Lucas was sucked into that tornadic(ph) monster and killed but his actions saved more than a dozen others in that Pizza Hut freezer. The president vowed that he will not forget the people of Joplin.

President OBAMA: And as president, I can promise you your country will be there with you every single step of the way.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

President OBAMA: We will be with you every step of the way.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

President OBAMA: Were not going anywhere

GOODWYN: After the memorial, dozens of families who lost loved ones filed into the parking lot. Zachary Tussinger lost his aunt and uncle, Glenn and Lonnie Holland. Holland had retired from the Air Force, he was 59. Tussinger thought the president understands something about Joplin that Joplin itself hadnt known - until this week.

Mr. ZACHARY TUSSINGER: You know, before this tornado, I would have said this is the most average place in the world, but its not. This is the most un-average, most extraordinary place in the world. And Im glad he recognized that the American people need to be behind us, not just this week, but next week, and next month, and next year.

GOODWYN: Standing next to Tussinger is 83-year-old Betty Jones. Her house was destroyed, her neighbors killed in their homes and backyards. But the F5 tornado could not knock the fight out of her.

How are you holding up?

Ms. BETTY JONES: Fine. Im old, honey. Ive lived though World War II, so Im fine. I just take this each day.

GOODWYN: To take this each day is Joplins only option. Tomorrow is another one.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Joplin.

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