BATON ROUGE, La. – President Barack Obama toured a flood-damaged neighborhood here on Tuesday and urged Americans rally behind residents, many of whom have complained in recent days of feeling forgotten.
The floods that hit Baton Rouge killed 13 and have been described as the worst natural disaster in the United States since Hurricane Sandy in 2012. But the damage and suffering have not received as much news coverage as that crisis.
“Sometimes once the floodwaters pass, people’s attention spans pass,” Obama said. “This is not a one-off, this is not a photo-op issue . . .this is how do make sure a month from now, three months from now, six months from now people are still getting the help they need.”
So far more than 100,000 people in Louisiana have applied for federal assistance. The government, meanwhile, has set aside $127 million to help those displaced find temporary housing, pay for home repairs and collect flood insurance. But the president cautioned that federal relief alone wouldn’t be enough to replace the losses.
Obama praised federal, state and local officials for their quick response to the crisis and promised more help was on the way.
Before leaving Baton Rouge, he also planned to meet with the family of Alton Sterling, a black man fatally shot by police in an incident that reignited the debate over law enforcement use of force against African Americans, as well as with the families of slain and injured officers of the Baton Rouge Police Department and East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office, White House officials said.
Obama landed in Louisiana on a stiflingly humid day and walked through one of the city’s hardest hit neighborhoods, where local residents were mourning lost friends and relatives, hauling away debris and helping each other.
The president described one elderly woman who had lost her daughter and was living alone, but was being helped by the son of one of her neighbors.
He said he spoke with another young woman whose husband had died shortly after the birth of her second child. The woman told Obama that her daughter was trying to salvage keepsakes that reminded her of her father from her flood-damaged room.
“This is not just about property damage,” Obama said. “It is about roots.”
Obama was criticized by Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, and the Baton Rouge newspaper for not cutting short his vacation plans last week in Martha’s Vineyard and rushing to view the flood damage or offer condolences.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the president ignored the criticism.
“We’re talking about lives lost. We’re talking about a community being upended,” Earnest said. “It’s an appropriate time to put politics aside, and actually focus on our responsibilities as Americans.”
In Baton Rouge, where the focus was on the clean-up, Obama had ditched his blazer and donned hiking shoes as he descended the stairs from Air Force One.
Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, a Republican, was among a half-dozen state and local officials who greeted his arrival.
“I’m just glad he’s here,” Nungesser told MSNBC in an interview as Obama departed the airport for the flood zone. “It’s going to be a long haul. We’re going to need a lot of help, a lot of prayers, and a lot of work to get back.”
At the Saintsville Church of God in Christ, across the street from the airport, a group of volunteers unloaded a truck full of supplies brought in by a church from Milwaukee. As they worked, dozens of police motorcycles lined up at the edge of the church parking lot, part of the motorcade that would escort Obama.
The group walked to the edge of the parking lot to see if they could spot the president. LueDora Stampley-Simms said she lost everything to the chest-high floodwaters that entered her home just over a week ago. “Things in my kitchen were by my front door,” she said.
She was excited about the president’s arrival. “I think he has to see it to understand,” she said. “Then he can tell the insurance companies and FEMA to do what they have to do to help people.”
Just a mile from the airport where Obama landed for his tour of flood-ravaged Louisiana, a dead-end street was lined with damaged furniture, crumpled drywall and over-stuffed garbage bags. Doors and windows were flung wide open in many of the single-story brick homes, and a hammer clanged steadily in the distance.
Eugene and Loretta Warren worked with their two sons to lug their flooded possessions–a microwave, their 2-year-old grandson’s toys, a entire kitchen set–to the curb. The home they rent here took on 4 feet of water, and the family is currently living in a shelter.
But the elder Warren and his wife were hopeful about Obamas’s visit. “Maybe it might speed things up,” he said. “It might help.”
In his brief remarks, Obama focused on making sure the victims of the Baton Rouge flood received not just federal help, but assistance from private charities and volunteers.
“The whole country is going to continue to support you and help you until we get folks back in their homes and lives are rebuilt,” Obama said. “That’s what Americans do in times like this.”
He urged all Americans to “stay focused” on the city, and urged those interested in helping to go to www.fema.gov or www.whitehouse.gov for information on how to donate.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Ashley Cusick, Greg Jaffe