LEE COUNTY, AL (WSFA) - President Donald Trump told media he couldn’t get to Alabama “fast enough” after an EF-4 tornado claimed 23 lives and added “I wanted to come the day it happened.”
Five days after the twister carved a 70-mile path across Lee County on the state’s eastern border, he and his team were on the ground to tour the damage. The people of Lee County welcomed the president to their hard-hit community with open arms and raised cell phones Friday afternoon.
Air Force One landed at nearby Lawson Army Airfield, located at Fort Benning, Georgia late in the morning. The Trumps boarded Marine One for a quick helicopter ride 45 miles west, over the state line and over the devastation that allowed the Commander In Chief a view down on hard hit areas of Beauregard and Smiths Station. Those are communities in a rural part of the county south of high population centers like Auburn and Opelika.
The helicopter flight lasted approximately 30 minutes before landing at Auburn University Regional Airport where the president was greeted by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and U.S. Senator Doug Jones. Already traveling with the president from Washington were Alabama leaders including U.S. Senator Richard Shelby and the area’s congressional representative, Mike Rogers.
Trump was also accompanied by members of his cabinet, including Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
After airport greetings, the group climbed into armored SUVs and took a motorcade into the affected areas to get a firsthand look at the damage and to talk with survivors or families of those who were killed.
The route featured many onlookers holding out their phones to take photos/video of the motorcade. A group of school children were also outside waving at the motorcade. There were several groups of onlookers along the drive. One couple sat in a pickup truck parked in a driveway waving a large American flag.
The motorcade passed one big group standing in front of a large sign attached to a fence that #BeauregardStrong. Another sign read “Welcome President Trump.”
The president got out of his motorcade around noon and walked through a heavily destroyed area in the Beauregard community where homes and trees were completely flattened for as far as the eye could see. He and his wife walked through the damage while getting a briefing from Kathy Carson, director of the Lee County Emergency Management Agency.
During the walk, he answered one press question about what he saw from the air.
“It’s hard to believe actually. We saw things you wouldn’t believe,” the president said. He added that "Governor [Kay Ivey] has done an incredible job.”
The first couple walked down a bit of a hill to greet three families who lost loved ones as well as homes in the tornado in this immediate area. He spent about eight minutes speaking with them and hugged many of them.
The tour included visiting what was left of the home of Sheila Creech and Marshall Lynn Grimes, both of whom died. There, Trump spoke with family members including Chris Grimes (son) and wife, Denise, David Grimes (brother) and wife, Kristen.
Ms. Creech came to Beauregard to live with Mr. Grimes after her Panama City apartment was damaged during Hurricane Michael in October 2018. Mr. Grimes’s daughter was hospitalized and her friend, Taylor Thornton, 10, died at the home when the tornado swept through. The two had just returned from a camping trip.
While the conversation could not be heard between the president and the Grimes family, one family member showed him the motorcycle vest and Bible that belonged to Lynn Grimes. The vest, which was a sentimental item to the family, was lost during the storms and later located and returned. Trump could be seen hugging the family.
Then, there was the home of Susanne and John Polk. He was hospitalized a week and a half ago and his doctors kept him longer than planned. On Sunday morning, Mrs. Polk left their home to visit her husband. Minutes later, she got a message that Lee Road 38 was hit by a tornado. Mrs. Polk is a member of the Beauregard Volunteer Fire Department and aided in the search and rescue efforts.
And President Trump visited the home of Tamatha “Tammy” and James “Jim” Cardwell. Mrs. Cardwell was home during the storm and survived.
At one point during the first stop, the president, Ivey and Carson spoke. However, it was difficult to hear and Ivey spoke very softly. It is clear that she thanked the president for coming and said that “we’re stronger together.”
Carson could be heard touting the work of locals who responded to the emergency.
“The support that we have gotten from local responders is unimaginable,” Carson explained.
The motorcade then traveled to Providence Baptist Church in Opelika where the president and others visited the disaster relief center that has been set up. There, he met with the church’s senior pastor, Rev. Rusty Sowell, and was able to thank first responders and volunteers, as well as meet with more survivors.
After meeting privately with nearly a dozen victim families inside the church, the president walked into a crowded auditorium that was already filled with clothes, toiletries, diapers, school backpacks and other items.
There, the president offered his condolences for the lives lost, but committed to helping the community recover. He said responders were doing an “A plus job,” a said “we’re gonna take care... FEMA is here.”
The crowd erupted into cheers after the president took a picture with Gatlin, a 12-year-old who has been volunteering at the church all week. He also signed several hats and Bibles.
In the days since the devastation, hundreds of people have given of themselves to help those in Lee County. Among them, a Chicago carpenter who spends his retirement building and delivering crosses in times of tragedy. Greg Zanis with Crosses for Losses delivered 23 to Lee County to honor those whose lives were taken.
After the first couple visited volunteers at Providence, they made the short walk to the memorial where the crosses were all lined up in a row. Holding the first lady’s hand, the president stopped and spent several moments in front of each cross, studying the names. He delicately touched at least one.
After Trump spoke at the church, a volunteer, Ada Ingram, said his visit will bring her town closer together.
“I’d vote for him again,” she said.
Ingram, who said she knew 10 of the victims, added "I enjoyed him coming. I think it’s a godsend. I’m sorry. The situation is bad. And there are going to be people who will say why did he come to my town. I don’t know why. I don’t why the hurricane happened. But there is a reason. “
The president was already scheduled to fly to his Florida home on Friday before the Alabama stop was added to his schedule. He plans to fly to Florida afterward.
Below is the current schedule for the president’s trip: