President Barack Obama toured the apocalyptic landscape left by Missouri’s killer tornado, consoled the bereaved and homeless, and committed the government to helping rebuild shattered lives.
After days of focusing on the US relationship with the rest of the world, Mr Obama pivoted to the intimate domestic task of acting as healer-in-chief.
He was visiting survivors from the worst tornado in decades, which tore through Joplin a week ago leaving more than 130 dead and hundreds more injured. At least 39 remain unaccounted for, and the damage is massive.
“We’re not going to stop until Joplin’s back on its feet,” Mr Obama vowed. A memorial service where he spoke punctuated a day of remembrance one week after the disaster, as authorities pressed on with the task of identifying the victims and volunteers combed through wreckage of neighbourhoods where nothing was left whole.
The service erupted in cheers when Mr Obama said, “I promise you your country will be there with you every single step of the way” – a pledge he extended to all parts of the nation hit by violent storms this season.
Air Force One flew over a massive swathe of brown – a land of flattened houses and stripped trees – on its approach to Joplin. On the ground, the destruction was even more stark and complete. Mr Obama confronted painful sights at every turn and said nothing in his life measured up to what he saw this day.
Yet he spoke, too, of redemptive moments, the stoicism of the community and tales of plain luck. He told a story of a man he talked to who apparently put a pot pie in the oven, heard the storm was coming, hid in a closet and “came out without a scratch”.
Mr Obama celebrated the spirit of volunteers who had flocked to Joplin to help, the pick-up truck owners who ferried people to hospital and the citizens who lined up for hours to donate blood to people they did not know.
“You’ve demonstrated a simple truth,” he told the service, “that amid heartbreak and tragedy no one is a stranger. Everybody is a brother. Everybody is a sister. We can all love one another.”
The crowd of hundreds at the service reflected a community in the midst of rebuilding: people in shorts and baseball caps, and plenty of babies who occasionally burst out crying. The president talked over the screeching until a baby was hurried out by the mother.
Mr Obama got a notably warm reception in this conservative part of Missouri. His remarks were tailored for a religious service, with quotes from scripture, references to the love that binds people to each other, and comments on the essential goodness of humanity.
The stories of the storm lead us to “put aside our petty grievances,” the president said. “There are heroes all around us, all the time. So, in the wake of this tragedy, let us live up to their example: to make each day count.”
Before the service, Mr Obama’s motorcade pulled into a neighbourhood where downed trees cleaved open houses, roofs were stripped or blown off, cars were cratered and splintered wood was everywhere. He saw nothing intact, but rather small domestic sights – a view into a room with a TV still in place, a recliner sitting amid rubble, a washer-dryer standing next to a decimated house. American flags were planted here and there in the mess.
“Sorry for your loss,” Mr Obama told an anguished woman, hugging her twice as they talked. Another woman told him that her uncle lived up the road – he survived but his house did not. “Tell your uncle we’re praying for him,” the president said.
To those working at the scene, the president said: “We appreciate everything you guys are doing. God bless you.” One volunteer told him that people were coming in from other states to help in any way they could.
“This is not just your tragedy,” Mr Obama said. “This is a national tragedy, and that means there will be a national response.” He said: “We are going to be here long after the cameras leave.”
Hours after Mr Obama’s speech, hundreds stood in Joplin’s Cunningham Park, in between wrecked cars and twisted poles, for a moment of silence to mark the first report of the tornado – at 5.41pm Central time.