Skyla Hudson, 41, is mourning the loss of her aunt, Vicki Braswell, a sunny presence who relished “dates” with her grandchildren and was among the 23 who perished in the series of tornadoes that touched down here last Sunday, transforming a close-knit town into a grieving family.
But as President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump came to the town to pay their respects on Friday, Hudson and most of Beauregard took solace.
“I know she’s smiling down,” Hudson, of Columbus, said of her aunt, who would’ve turned 70 in May. “She just would have loved to meet him.”
As Beauregard begins the process of burying the dead — at least two funerals were held Friday — Trump arrived to serve as comforter-in-chief. He marveled at the ferocity of the twisters and assured Alabamians that federal assistance will remain as long as it takes. He met with survivors, family members of the deceased and volunteers at Providence Baptist Church, which has served as a gathering point for volunteers and families. At one point, he signed several hats and Bibles, including one for a 12 year old boy, drawing a large roar of applause from the group.
He and the first lady took a helicopter over the worst-hit areas and later toured them on foot. He noted he had met with a family who lost 10 members in the estimated 30 tornadoes that raked the South.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Trump said.
Trump, whose administration was criticized for a slow response to the 2017 hurricane that ravaged Puerto Rico, told the church crowd that Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who joined him on the tour, had had to caution him to give first responders time to pick up before he arrived.
“We couldn’t get here fast enough,” Trump said. “I wanted to come the day it happened.”
And he vowed that FEMA would stay as long as needed. “We love you all. We love the state of Alabama.”
After speaking briefly at the church, Trump walked outside to 23 wooden crosses that family members of the dead have adorned with stuffed animals, flowers and messages. Holding Melania’s hand, he spent several moments in front of each cross, touching at least one.
Trump, who flew on Air Force One into Fort Benning, Georgia, before boarding helicopters, was greeted in Alabama by Ivey and Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, who each had toured the damage earlier in the week. He brought with him Alabama’s other senator, Republican Richard Shelby.
The presidential helicopter spent about 25 minutes over the tornado zone, which extended some 70 miles across Alabama and Georgia.
More than 100 homes were rendered uninhabitable and Trump was accompanied by HUD Secretary Ben Carson, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and FEMA Deputy Administrator Peter Gaynor.
The White House said the Trumps were expected to visit the site that was once the home of Sheila Creech and Marshall Lynn Grimes, who died in the twister. Creech came to Beauregard to live with Grimes after her Panama City apartment was damaged during Hurricane Michael in October 2018.
Grimes’ daughter, Kayla, was hospitalized and her best friend, Taylor Thornton, age 10, died at the home. The two girls had just returned from a camping trip. The family members expected to meet with the president and first Lady included Grimes’ son, Chris Grimes and his wife, Denise, his brother David Grimes and his wife, Kristen.
Services were held earlier Friday for Thornton at First Baptist Church in Opelika. “She was loved by everyone that knew her,” her obituary read. “Taylor loved her family and was known as ‘Sweet Taylor’ to everyone she knew.”
One of the youngest victims of the storm, she loved to “ride horses, roller blade, ice skate, and hang out with her best friend.”
The White House said the Trumps were also to meet with Susanne and John Polk, who narrowly missed the tornado. John Polk was hospitalized a week and a half ago and his doctors kept him longer than originally planned. On Sunday morning, Susanne Polk left the house to visit her husband and minutes later received a message that Lee Road 38 was hit by a tornado.
Susanne Polk is a member of the Beauregard Volunteer Fire Department and aided in the search and rescue efforts.
They also will visit the home of Tamatha “Tammy” and James “Jim” Cardwell. Tammy Cardwell was home during the storm and survived.
There were already signs of support for the presidential visit before Trump left Washington, D.C. Fans with his red signature Make America Great Again hats waited by the road in hopes of spotting the motorcade and at the local high school, residents signed a giant banner of thanks.
“For him to leave Washington, D.C., and come down to little Beauregard says a lot about the president,” said Chad Roberts, a former Georgia police officer who used to ride motorcycles with David Dean, 53, one of the 23 people killed when the twister touched down on Sunday.
Trump drew criticism earlier this week for seemingly playing politics with disaster aid by tweeting that “FEMA has been told directly by me to give the A Plus treatment to the Great State of Alabama and the wonderful people who have been so devastated.”
But fans in the solid-red state dismissed concerns that Trump would play favorites.
“He’s going to help people, regardless, to him that’s irrelevant,” said DuWayne “Moose” Bridges, Jr., who wore his red MAGA hat and stood outside the Beauregard High School where he was rewarded with a brief glimpse of Trump’s motorcade. “Anytime he goes anywhere people are going to try to play politics. But we know even though he’s a wealthy, successful businessman, he feels for the common people. He’s going to do what’s best for all Americans.”
Trump left for his Mar-A-Lago resort in Florida, where he was scheduled Friday night to host and speak at a fundraiser for Trump Victory, a joint fundraiser committee authorized by his re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee.