Housing and Urban Development Director Shaun Donovan has been chosen to lead the federal government's assistance to states rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy, President Obama announced Thursday after touring parts of New York.
"We thought it'd be good to have a New Yorker who's going to be the point person," Obama said from Staten Island, where he concluded a tour with Donovan and state lawmakers that included a flyover of Far Rockaway and Breezy Point in Queens, where more than 100 homes burned as floodwaters kept firefighters at bay.
Speaking in front of a few destroyed homes in Staten Island, where thousands of homes and businesses still have no power, Obama added, "We are going to be here until the rebuilding is complete."
Donovan will coordinate that federal effort, helping to implement recovery plans in the states battered by the second-costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
Thousands have been displaced by the storm, which made landfall Oct. 29 over New Jersey and will cost an estimated $50 billion. More than 8 million people lost power during the storm, and tens of thousands still lack basic utilities.
Although workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were on the ground within hours of Sandy, once services are restored and life begins to return to normal for most, those teams will leave. That's when the thousands who lost homes in the storm surge, electrical fires and from downed trees will look to the states for rebuilding and the federal government for support.
Before he became HUD secretary in 2009, Donovan, 46, was commissioner of New York City's Department of Housing Preservation and Development, where he created and implemented the country's largest affordable housing construction and preservation program.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has said he expects FEMA to fully reimburse his state for the estimated $33 billion in damage and economic losses it suffered in the storm.
Obama surveyed the devastated region Thursday with Cuomo, New York Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
Bundled in thick winter coats, scarves and beanies, residents crowded around the president, snapping pictures and hugging him.
"We've got some work to do and I want you to know I'm here to do it," Obama told a crowd outside a boarded-up brick church.
In a tent packed with first responders along with displaced residents looking for food and basic necessities, the crowd hollered for his attention. Some wanted him there sooner, and others just wanted to thank him, according to pool reports.
Obama met with Damien and Glenda Moore, a New York couple whose two young sons were swept away in the storm. The Moores were still "shellshocked" from their loss, Obama said, but they made sure the president heard about a police lieutenant who held their hands through the ordeal.
"He did that because that's what so many first responders do," Obama said. "They go above and beyond the call of duty to respond to people in need.… In that spirit and togetherness and looking out for one another, that's what's going to carry us through the tragedy."
The visit was Obama's second trip to the Eastern Seaboard after Sandy. In the days leading up to the election, he toured the New Jersey shore with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who said he was impressed with the president's response. Among other things, Obama had expedited emergency declaration requests from several Northeastern states, fast-tracking money to the region. New Jersey's tourism and commercial fishing industry have yet to recover.
Sandy killed almost 200 people in the U.S. and the Caribbean, where it had hurricane status. More than 414,000 people have registered for FEMA assistance, and more than $611 million has been approved for housing assistance and other needs.