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.
“Too little too late,” Mona Gaspard said of Obama’s visit. The resident of Ascension Parish said she saw her home filled with 4 feet of water and resented what she saw from Obama. “I saw him play golf, not helping out over here. Trump was over here, but he wasn’t,” she said.
Others were far less critical.
“It means a lot to know you have that support from the highest level,” said Chrisena Brown, as the president surveyed the piles of discarded mattresses, broken appliances and heaps of clothing that line the curbs of her street. The college administrator says she’s staying with family while she cleans up, working late into the night in stifling humidity.
Obama told reporters 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.”
Obama is hardly new to the potent politics of natural disasters. As a candidate in 2008, he was a leading critic of President George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina. And in 2012, the year of his re-election effort, he rushed to Louisiana to show solidarity with victims of Hurricane Isaac.
Now a president eying the end of his second term, Obama was neither emotional nor particularly defensive in relaying his message to residents. He said flatly he doesn’t “worry too much about politics” and that he is focused on improving the speed and efficiency of the federal response.
“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.”
Louisiana officials aimed for bipartisan support and unity as they turned to the task of rounding up federal money for their state. A large group of officials met the president at the airport, including Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat; Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, a Republican; and Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy and David Vitter.
In a letter to Obama, Edwards asked the president to reduce Louisiana’s share of the response costs from 25 percent to 10 percent, to fully cover the Louisiana National Guard’s response costs and to seek disaster block grant aid for the state from Congress.
The governor estimated flooding has ravaged “well over 100,000 homes” across south Louisiana — on top of 29,000 homes that received damage in a March flood in northern parts of the state.
The White House said $127 million in federal aid had been designated for temporary rental assistance, essential home repairs, and flood insurance payments. 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.
Edwards had said Obama was better off timing his visit until after the cleanup was underway, so as not to pull resources away from the effort. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton issued a statement Monday saying she would visit “at a time when the presence of a political campaign will not disrupt the response, to discuss how we can and will rebuild together.”
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.
Before leaving Louisiana, Obama paid another visit he has been criticized for delaying. The president met privately with the family of Alton Sterling, a black man whose death last month in a police shooting sparked protests and mass arrests. Obama also met with the families of officers killed or injured nearly two weeks later by a gunman, apparently in response to Sterling’s killing, the White House said.
Obama was criticized for not visiting Baton Rouge after those two incidents. He later went to Dallas instead to eulogize five police officers killed in another attack targeting law enforcement.
Associated Press writers Kathleen Hennessey, Rebecca Santana and Melinda Deslatte contributed to this report