by Max Brantley
Marine One landed at 1:03 pm CDT. In a field near Vilonia schools where children and teachers stood outside and cheered. The president departed Marine One at 1:06 pm. POTUS was greeted by a marine in full dress. He saluted and the president talked with staff members. Then got into a black SUV and joined the motorcade. People gathered all along Main Street in Vilonia, waving to POTUS and taking pictures and video with their cameras. Some children held blue Obama-Biden campaign signs near the Vilonia Fire Department as the motorcade passed. POTUS arrived at Vilonia City Hall at 1:11 pm. Where he is scheduled to meet privately with first responders.
While POTUS visited with first responders inside Vilonia City Hall, a group of more than 100 gathered at the nearby Vilonia Fire Station, where rescuers scrambled to aid victims on the night of the April 27 storm. The night of the storms, the fire station was turned into an operations center where volunteer firefighters from several area agencies gathered briefly and then split up into teams to search the damaged homes and businesses for survivors. At City Hall, that same night, Vilonia Fire Chief Keith Hillman walked from room-to-room, directing rescue crews into the late hours of the morning.
On Wednesday at city hall, POTUS visited privately with first responders, families affected by the tornado and recovery workers.
His motorcade waited outside, about a hundred yards from the gathering of residents on Wednesday, nearly all of whom took pictures with their cell phones. Some carried signs and others waited, leaning on cars and standing in the shade of large trees where a flag flew at half-staff.
Gov. Mike Beebe, Sen. Mark Pryor and U.S. Rep Tim Griffin flew over the damaged areas with POTUS in Marine One. The flight lifted off from Little Rock AFB and then traveled over western Pulaski County and Mayflower where there was severe tornado damage. The flight then continued on to Vilonia where POTUS surveyed the damaged from the air before landing. Beebe, Pryor and Griffin then joined the president as he met with first responders in Vilonia City Hall. President Obama also met privately with families.
Attribution on dignitary details in pool report #3 is Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample.
At 2:14 p.m., the president's motorcade departed from city hall and traveled east on Main Street past more gathered sightseers and residents. The motorcade then turned north on Naylor Road and went to the hard-hit Parkwood Meadow subdvision where dozens of houses were leveled. The president passed by slabs where homes once stood just a little more than a week ago. Out front of one demolished home, an American flag flapped in the wind as workers and construction crews paused from their cleanup to wave at the motorcade. Debris piles — some more than 10 feet high — were heaped on the east side of the road. Most were splintered lumber and metal. One included a green child's slide and playground equipment. POTUS' motorcade turned into the damaged subdivision and pulled to the end of the cul de sac.
In the subdivision, on one side of the street, some homes were largely unblemished. On the other side, most had been wiped clean to their slabs by the massive storm.
Among the debris a man stood with two boys leaned against his body as the president passed by in a black SUV.
At 2:20 p.m., the president exited the motorcade at the end of the cul de sac along with Gov. Mike Beebe, Sen. Mark Pryor, Congressman Tim Griffin and Vilonia Mayor James Firestone.
POTUS stopped and shook hands with Firestone and put his hands on his hips as he listened to the mayor out of earshot of reporters.
POTUS then walked down the street between piles of debris and destroyed homes. POTUS wore a light-colored button down shirt and khaki pants. He then talked with Griffin and both gestured to the damage areas and a pile of mangled lumber and metal.
The president then walked down the street with Pryor, Griffin and Beebe listening to Firestone. POTUS then broke away from the group and called out to two men in work clothes who stood near a trackhoe amid the debris. “How are you all doing?,” POTUS asked the men. He then shook their hands and talked with them. Most of the conversation was out of earshot of reporters but the president could be heard asking one of the men a question.
“Is anybody else at the hospital?,” POTUS asked.
“My wife and my son,” the man replied.
The president then talked for a few minutes with the men out of earshot of reporters before moving on down the street.
At 2:22 p.m., POTUS continued on down the street after talking with the men by the trackhoe.
"How are you guys?" the president called to a man and two small boys (the same ones from earlier).
The man replied. "Man, it's good to see you sir" as the president shook his hand. "We're glad you're hear."
The president talked with the man and the two boys, inquiring as to the boys ages. Six and nine, they replied.
POTUS laughed as he continued talking with the man out of earshot of reporters.
At one point, the president could be heard asking the man: "Where were you when all this happened?"
The man replied that he was at a newly built shelter at Vilonia High School, where about 300 people sheltered the night of the storm.
As the president talked with the man and two boys (names to come in backgrounder from WH), one of the boys held a white, toy car. The other leaned against the man, and looked up at the president as they talked.
The president then asked the man which house he lived in. The man gestured down the street where some homes still had walls standing.
"You guys are one of those that kind of stayed up," the president said.
The man wore a maroon shirt with "Peace, Love and PTA," written in yellow on the back.
Then POTUS posed for a picture with the man and two boys. All four smiled.
POTUS began his remarks at 2:30 p.m. standing at a podium in the middle of a street. The president was flanked by Pryor, Beebe, Griffin and Firestone. (see earlier pool reports for full names).
The president stood in front of a clean slab of a home destroyed by the tornado.
The president began by remarking on his tour of the damage.
"Obviously we just had a chance to tour some of the areas that were devastated by last week's tornadoes," POTUS said.
He thanked the workers and volunteers who have been helping clean up the damage.
He also thanked Beebe, Pryor, Griffin and Firestone.
"They all showed great leadership and were here on the ground in these difficult days," POTUS said.
The president also told those gathered that the federal government would remain in the area helping residents and businesses owners rebuild.
He summarized the federal disaster declaration for Faulkner County and other damaged areas, and mentioned FEMA director Craig Fugate's visit in the days after the storms.
"Here in Vilonia, the recovery process is just beginning," POTUS said.
"Folks here are tough. They look out for each other. That's been clear over this past week," he said.
He then mentioned one volunteer, 16-year-old Casey Williams (check with WH for spelling), who the president said embodied the spirit of the volunteers who have come to help the town. She was such a determined volunteer that at one point, state troopers even took orders from her, POTUS said of Williams.
He then mentioned another man who he spoke with earlier Wednesday. The man told the president: "We just say a prayer and then get to work," the president recalled.
"A lot of work remains to be done but I'm here to remind you that you're not in this alone," the president said.
POTUS also said that he would be working with Beebe, Griffin and Pryor to come up with a way to help Vilonia with one of Firestone's concerns — the loss of the city's sales tax base due to the storm.
The president closed his remarks by saying that he was inspired by the attitudes of the volunteers, rescue workers and family members of victims that he met Wednesday.
"It's a reminder that as important as possessions are, nothing's more important than family," the president said.
"I could not be more proud of everybody that's participated in this recovery," POTUS said.
He ended his remarks at 2:35 p.m. Please refer to White House copy of remarks to double check quotes and remarks summary above.
The motorcade departed the subdivision at 2:38 p.m. It arrived at the Vilonia Schools and waiting helicopters at 2:42 p.m.
The president boarded Marine One and it departed at 2:47 p.m. Four other helicopters that accompanied it carrying press and staff departed shortly after.
That'll close out the local pool.