RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
President Obama spent time in Arkansas yesterday, in the aftermath of a natural disaster. It was his first visit to the state since becoming president, and the occasion was a somber one, to visit the areas where late last month, a massive tornado killed 16 people.
NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith went along.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: President Obama flew over the damage in a helicopter, getting a sweeping view of the destruction. The EF4 tornado ripped a gash through the rural communities of Mayflower and Vilonia. Homes were wiped clean to their slabs, businesses shredded beyond recognition.
After meeting privately with survivors and first-responders, President Obama and a bipartisan group of Arkansas elected officials walked down Clover Ridge Road to see up close what the tornado had done. He walked up to Daniel Smith and his two sons.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Hey, guys.
DANIEL SMITH: Hey. How are you, sir?
OBAMA: Who you got here?
SMITH: This is Gabriel, and this is Garrison.
OBAMA: Good to see you guys.
SMITH: Man, it's wonderful to see you, sir.
OBAMA: What's your name, sir?
KEITH: Smith, whose home is still standing - but barely - shook the president's hand. Obama gave his two sons small boxes of White House M&Ms.
SMITH: For someone of that stature to come out and want to see how you are and check on things, it means a lot.
KEITH: Smith didn't vote for President Obama. In 2012, the president lost Arkansas by more than 20 percentage points. And this was his first time in the state, either as a candidate or president. But some things just transcend politics. Smith says he's glad the president came to his cul-de-sac.
SMITH: It makes you feel like he's in it with you, you know. It's support.
KEITH: And in situations like this, that's really all the presidents can do.
OBAMA: So, the people of Vilonia and all the other towns devastated by the storm understand there's a lot of work that remains to be done, but I'm here to remind them that they're not doing this work alone. Your country's going to be here for you. We're going to support you every step of the way.
KEITH: After the president left, the fleet of helicopters gone from the horizon, Vicki Champagne and her husband rolled up to the very spot where the president's podium had been. She just got out of the hospital yesterday, and is still wearing a neck brace and a bandage on her arm. Her stepson, Jeffrey Hunter, didn't survive the tornado.
VICKI CHAMPAGNE: My husband and I were both thrown out of the house. We were in the tub with my son, and we were ripped apart away from each other. My husband found me on the ground, and then he found our son. And a stranger checked Jeffrey, and he wasn't breathing.
KEITH: She doesn't remember anything else after that. Champagne had a punctured lung and two cracked vertebrae. She was among those who met privately with President Obama in Vilonia City Hall.
CHAMPAGNE: He just wanted to know about Jeffrey. And I got to talk about Jeffrey, and my children got to talk about Jeffrey, and my husband talked to him.
KEITH: Jeffrey Hunter was 22 years old, a senior in college studying computer science. He worked at a nearby convenience store. People who know him say he was spooked by the tornado that hit Vilonia three years ago, so when he heard a storm was coming, he rushed to his parent's house, driving his little red Ford Focus. For Champagne, being back at what was left of her house was overwhelming.
CHAMPAGNE: It doesn't make a difference about the house.
KEITH: She's thinking about her sweet boy, Jeffrey, who always drove the speed limit and who, when he was in sixth grade, held his umbrella over two little girls stuck in a rainstorm without anyone telling him it was the right thing to do. It's just not fair, she says. It's just not fair. So, what in the world can the president of the United States say when condolences can't fix what's broken?
CHAMPAGNE: He owned it, which was it was nothing that he could say to comfort other than to let us know that a nation was grieving with us, and he didn't have to do that.
KEITH: Whether it's Moore, Oklahoma or Oso, Washington or Fort Hood, Texas or countless other places touched by tragedy, sometimes the president just has to be there. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Little Rock, Arkansas.