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President tours Tennessee storm area

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  • NEW: Bush assures victims that "a lot of people around America care for them"
  • NEW: "I'm here to listen," supervise federal response, president days
  • Five counties in the state declared "major disaster" areas
  • Firefighter finds 11-month-old child who was thrown 100 yards
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LAFAYETTE, Tennessee (CNN) -- President Bush arrived in Tennessee on Friday morning, "taking the prayers of the American people to those who suffered from the devastating tornadoes."

After Air Force One landed at the Nashville airport, Bush immediately boarded a Marine helicopter to fly to Lafayette in Macon County, where 14 people were killed and 170 homes were damaged in Tuesday night's storms.

"People gotta understand here in the region that a lot of folks around America care for them," he said after receiving a briefing from local emergency officials.

"I'm here to listen, to make sure that the federal response is compassionate and effective."

He moved up a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington to make room in his schedule for the Tennessee visit.

Bush on Thursday declared five Tennessee counties "major disaster" areas after the deadliest tornado outbreak in the United States in more than 20 years.

"The president's action makes federal funding available to affected individuals in the counties of Hardin, Macon, Madison, Shelby, and Sumner," the White House said in a statement.

The assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, as well as low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses. Video Watch a bruised survivor tell his story »

On Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff met with officials in Jackson, Tennessee, which suffered the heaviest loss of life.

Of the 56 killed in the tornadoes that struck five states, 32 died in Tennessee. There were four fatalities in Alabama, 13 in Arkansas and seven in Kentucky.

Chertoff toured the devastated regions of Tennessee and expressed his awe at the "sheer randomness" of the tornadoes.

"Literally one house is pulverized and one house remains standing," Chertoff said.

"There's a quality to the tornadoes of randomness that really is humbling."

He vowed the federal government would stand "shoulder to shoulder" with local and state officials across the affected area "so we can begin the process of rebuilding."

David Paulison, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said FEMA has improved its communication with local authorities since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

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"The difference that we see in the state, local and federal response from what we saw in Katrina is developing that partnership, developing the communication, that unified command system we did not have," Paulison said.

"And it is working -- it worked in California [wildfires], it worked in Oklahoma a couple of months ago with the ice storms and it's going to work here also."

Jackson Mayor Jerry Gist said 60 people in his town were injured in tornadoes that damaged 576 homes. About 100 of the 576 homes were destroyed, he said.

The mayor estimated the damage in his town at "upwards of $70 million," and he noted that several other tornadoes have hit the town in past years.

"It's as if we go around with a bull's-eye on our backs," he said.

In Castalian Springs, Tennessee, people were talking about the miraculous survival of a baby in the storm.

Armed with nothing but a flashlight and finding no signs of life, firefighter David Harmon made one final search of tornado wreckage and made the discovery of a lifetime.

"I shined the flashlight across it and said 'I've got a baby doll.' And before I got 'I've got a baby doll' out of my mouth, it moved," Harmon said.

In the pitch darkness, in the middle of a field, Harmon found the baby boy covered with mud and debris.

"As soon as we rolled the baby over, it took a gasp of air and started crying," he said.

Eleven-month-old Kyson Stowell was thrown 100 yards when a tornado shattered his home. He was found shivering but with only minor injuries. His mother, Kerri, was killed. Video Watch Harmon show where he found Kyson »

His grandfather, Douglas Stowell, described Kyson and his mother as "best friends."

"She was a good mother to him," he said. "I just hate to see her gone. ... He loved his momma, and she loved him."

Stowell estimated that it was at least two hours after the storm before the baby was found. "He's just a miracle," the grandfather told reporters. Video Watch grandfather recall storm as Kyson squirms »

The entire area where Kyson was found had been searched once, and rescuers found nothing. After sorting through all the debris, they found a baby stroller and decided to look again.


Harmon said he was overwhelmed by the experience and felt connected to Kyson.

"He'll always have a special place in my heart," he said. "I hope I continue to stay in contact with the grandparents, and I would like to get to know the kid as he gets older." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's David Mattingly and Susan Roesgen contributed to this report.

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