White House flips into disaster mode after deadly Alabama tornadoes

President Obama and his aides snapped into disaster response mode Wednesday after tornadoes ripped through the South, killing at least 280 people.

Obama and his staff have moved quickly since storms devastated Alabama and several other states, mobilizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and arranging for a presidential visit to Alabama on Friday.

The president also canceled a visit with the Auburn University’s NCAA championship football team that had been scheduled for Friday. Obama is traveling to Alabama, which is the Auburn team’s home state.

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After the national embarrassment of Hurricane Katrina severely damaged former President George W. Bush, Obama has worked hard to appear engaged and responsive in the aftermaths of natural disasters.

Bush’s popularity never recovered after Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and led to 24-hour cable news telecasts of survivors living in squalor in the Superdome and New Orleans convention center. The lasting image of Bush was a photograph of him flying over New Orleans, seeming distant from the disaster.

Obama has taken pains to ensure he is not caught flat-footed by a natural disaster, and on Thursday the damage from the storm overshadowed Obama’s nominations of his new national security team of Leon Panetta as Defense secretary, David Petraeus as CIA director, Lt. Gen. John Allen as head of Afghanistan operations and Ryan Crocker as ambassador to that country.

The White House had rolled out details of the new security team piecemeal to gather as much media attention as possible with the understanding it would peak with the announcement by Obama. But before introducing the new team and outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama talked about the disaster in the South, saying that “the loss of life has been heartbreaking, especially in Alabama.”

“In a matter of hours these deadly tornadoes, some of the worst that we’ve seen in decades, took mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors. Even entire communities,” Obama said.

The president acknowledged that “we can't control when or where a terrible storm may strike.”

“But we can control how we respond to it, and I want every American who has been affected by this disaster to know the federal government will do everything we can to help you recover, and we will stand with you as you rebuild,” Obama said.

The administration's reaction to the storms began Wednesday.  

That night, with the storms still wreaking havoc, Obama called Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley to inform him that he had approved the governor’s request for a state of emergency.

On that call, the president expressed his condolences for those killed and commended the efforts of rescue workers.

“While we may not know the extent of the damage for days, we will continue to monitor these severe storms across the country and stand ready to continue to help the people of Alabama and all citizens affected by these storms,” Obama said in a statement issued after the call.

Throughout the day Thursday, the White House highlighted the call and other actions the administration had taken to try to bring relief to people in Alabama and other states.

Obama immediately dispatched FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate to Alabama to meet with Bentley and survey the damage in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. Fugate’s deputy, Rich Serino, was sent to Atlanta to meet with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and assess the damage in that state.

On Thursday morning, the president was briefed by telephone by Fugate and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Obama will travel to Alabama on Friday morning before attending the space shuttle launch in Florida.

When Obama did pivot to introducing his new defense team, he led off by thanking Gates for his service to the country. Gates was the lone holdover in Obama's Cabinet from the Bush administration, and earned rave reviews from both parties on his handling of the Pentagon and two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Gates will retire on June 30, giving time for the Senate to confirm his successor in Panetta. 

The new nominee said he wanted the U.S. to remain the strongest military power on earth while also being "disciplined" in spending taxpayer dollars. 

Panetta is expected to seek further spending cuts at a Pentagon that has already gone through a round of belt-tightening. 

This story was initially posted at 4:46 p.m., and updated at 5:03 p.m.