By Kevin Freking
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Standing amid piles of waterlogged debris, President Barack Obama on Tuesday promised a sustained national effort to rebuild flood-ravaged southern Louisiana “even after the TV cameras leave” on a visit aimed in part at stemming campaign-season criticism that he’s been slow to respond to the disaster.
As he toured a battered neighborhood and spoke to reporters, Obama reassured residents that the federal response would be robust and he tried to buck up beleaguered residents of the water-soaked region, many of whom have said they feel their plight has been ignored by national officials and the media.
“This is not a one-off, this is not a photo-op issue,” the president said in a statement to reporters. “I need all Americans to stay focused on this … I know you will rebuild again.”
Obama’s visit was a reminder of the political dangers and opportunities that natural disasters can pose. The president has been criticized for waiting until after this New England vacation to tour the flooding. The timing, coming amid a heated presidential campaign, drew criticism from some local officials and Republicans political opponents, including GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Trump made the visit to Baton Rouge on Friday.
Obama told reporter he doesn’t “worry too much” about politics and said he saw Americans coming together to help.
The president walked past mattresses, appliances and heaps of clothing tossed out on the curb in a middle-class neighborhood in East Baton Rouge Parish, where few homes were spared from late-summer storms that killed at least 13 people in the region and displaced thousands.
Going door-to-door and trailed by cameras, he offered sympathy to residents as they took a break from the cleanup to talk about the damage.
“I wish I was coming at a better time,” he told one resident, as he put his arm around her and walked into her home for a brief tour. “But I’m glad to see everybody is safe, at least.”
The White House said Obama is willing to assume criticism about “optics” as long as the federal response is up to par.
“The survivors of the flooding in Louisiana are not well served by a political discussion; they’re well served by a competent, effective, strong, coordinated government response,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday. “And the federal government has certainly done our part in the first eight to 10 days after this disaster, but there’s a long road ahead.”
Obama was met at the Baton Rouge airport by a bipartisan group of officials, including Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, and Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, a Republican. Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy and David Vitter also met the president on the tarmac.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton issued a statement Monday saying she would visit the communities affected by the flooding “at a time when the presence of a political campaign will not disrupt the response, to discuss how we can and will rebuild together.”
The storm and its flooding have damaged an estimated 60,000 homes and forced thousands to seek temporary housing. More than 115,000 people have registered for federal disaster aid, with the state saying $20 million has been distributed to individuals so far. At least 40 state highways remained closed.
Nearly 11 years ago, Hurricane Katrina’s crippling of New Orleans and the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama demonstrated how political leaders cannot afford to underestimate the gravity of responding to natural disasters with force and immediacy. In 2005, then-President George W. Bush was faulted by critics for flying over but not touching down in Louisiana in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a decision he years later described as a mistake.
In 2012, Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney wasted no time in heading to Louisiana to see the damage from Hurricane Isaac.
The White House on Monday pointed to praise for the federal government from the state’s Democratic governor and Republican lieutenant governor as evidence of an effective response. And it dismissed criticism of Obama’s decision to stay away during the first week-and-a-half after the flooding as politically motivated.
Bel Edwards, who took office this year, said he suggested to Obama and presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett that they delay a trip to Louisiana until the initial disaster response was over and recovery efforts had started.
Obama signed a disaster declaration on August 14 that makes federal funding available for assistance such as grants for temporary housing and home repairs, and low-cost loans to cover losses for uninsured property. He subsequently dispatched FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to the region.