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Obama tours flood-damaged Louisiana and dismisses criticism that his visit was delayed

President Obama tours a flood-damaged section of Baton Rouge, La., on Tuesday.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

President Obama tried to set aside politics Tuesday in favor of pointing to the plight of victims of the devastating floods in Louisiana as he underscored the importance of an effective and quick federal disaster response.

Obama toured ravaged homes and talked with relatives of some of the 13 people killed by flooding from severe rains of the last two weeks. With Republican and Democratic officials at his side, he dismissed criticism that he ignored the unfolding disaster while he was on vacation and instead urged Americans to help.

“Nobody on this block, none of those first responders — nobody gives a hoot whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” Obama said during his tour. “What they care about is making sure they’re getting the drywall out, the carpet out, there’s not any mold building, they get some contractors in here and they start rebuilding as quick as possible.”

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Obama bragged about the speed with which his Federal Emergency Management Agency is dispatching aid to the region, and White House aides noted that more than $127 million for rental assistance and flood insurance payments has already been disbursed. More than 100,000 people have applied for federal assistance.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican, cautioned that it was too early to judge the FEMA response.

But the bipartisan array of officials touring with Obama made for an image that stood out for its contrast from the partisan accusations lobbed in recent days. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump visited the area last week and complained that Democratic rival Hillary Clinton had not done likewise. Clinton countered that she would travel to Louisiana “at a time when the presence of a political campaign will not disrupt the response.”

Trump charged Tuesday that the president should have gone to Louisiana instead of golfing on vacation. “Too little, too late!” he tweeted as Obama was en route to Baton Rouge.

Local critics were quick to take offense last week when Obama did not leave his vacation to go see the flooding damage. The Advocate, Baton Rouge’s newspaper, published a harsh editorial about images of Obama golfing while victims suffered.

“It evoked the precedent of the passive federal response to the state’s agony in 2005, a chapter of history no one should ever repeat,” the editors wrote, referring to the George W. Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Katrina caused damage on a much larger scale than the recent flooding; the hurricane killed at least 1,400 and was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

White House officials believe the public will tolerate a short delay in a presidential visit to the site of a natural disaster as long as the federal government’s response is effective and have said Obama waited to see the flood damage out of respect for law enforcement officials, not wanting to pull them off of their immediate emergency work in order to provide security for him.

Aides to Obama have said that the theatrics of a presidential visit weren’t the point of the trip, but rather to inspect the quality of the federal government’s response.

When a natural disaster hits, competent leadership matters more than partisan politics, Obama suggested.

“When you get into trouble, you want somebody who knows what they’re doing,” Obama said. “And that’s true whatever party.”

Residents still gutting flooded brick homes stepped outside to greet Obama, who hugged them and stopped to chat. Several said Obama asked them to gauge FEMA’s efforts.

“He seemed pretty interested in what we’re going through,” said Rose Armstrong, 67, a retired postal clerk who was helping clean the waterlogged home of her daughter Rita Polk, 50, a letter carrier who also lost her new white Camaro in the flood.

Neither Quincy Snowden, 33, an AT&T manager and father of two who was hosing down his flooded house with bleach to ward off mold, nor Oliver Cage, 33, a truck driver, said they faulted Obama for delaying his visit. Last week, many roads in this town about 15 miles north of Baton Rouge were impassable, and police were stretched thin responding to the storm’s immediate aftermath.

In Baton Rouge, standing outside her flooded brick home, Kejuana Sibley said she hoped Obama’s visit would open the door to more federal aid.

“I hope it brings an awareness” of the disaster, Sibley said. “How soon is relief going to start coming? I don’t know if he can get the ball rolling, maybe get some assistance, visit a shelter.”

FEMA officials have not been to her street in the hard-hit Sherwood Forest area, where a neighbor died during the flooding, one of 13 killed.

Sibley, 32, a seamstress who lost fabric and other supplies in the flood, pointed to the high water mark on her house, about two feet high, and at the vacant brick ranch houses surrounding her, some with doors open, still airing out.

“It looks like a war zone in this neighborhood,” Sibley said. “We don’t even know when they’re going to come pick up the trash.”

The flooding in the region has punctuated the city’s trying summer.

Last month, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot to death by police in Baton Rouge at close range, an encounter captured on video that spawned immediate outrage. Sterling, who was black, was on the ground and appeared to be subdued by white officers when he was shot.

Authorities believe Sterling’s death inspired a gunman to shoot law enforcement officers in Baton Rouge weeks later, killing three of them.

Obama, who was also criticized for skipping a trip to Baton Rouge after Sterling’s death, met Tuesday with the families of the slain officers and of Sterling, according to a White House official.

Hennessy-Fiske reported from Zachary and Parsons from Washington.

Twitter: @cparsons, @mollyhf

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UPDATES:

1:15 p.m.: This story was updated with details of Obama’s visit.

10:50 a.m.: This story was updated with Obama landing in Louisiana and comment from the White House.

9:25 a.m.: This story was updated with comment from a flooding victim and from Donald Trump.

This story was originally published at 3 a.m.


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