The Wall Street Journal
President Barack Obama traveled to the Baton Rouge, La., area on Tuesday to pledge federal support to repair the damage from some of the worst flooding to hit the U.S. in years, while also calling for private donors and volunteers to help get families and local businesses back on their feet.
“What I want the people of Louisiana to know is that you’re not alone in this,” Mr. Obama said, noting that 100,000 people in the state had applied for federal aid. “Even after the TV cameras leave, 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.”
On Tuesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that it has provided more than $127 million so far to help people hit by the flooding—including $107 million to help pay for temporary rent, home repairs and other disaster-related needs. FEMA has paid out another $20 million to flood insurance policyholders who have filed a claim, according to a spokesman. FEMA is paying for about 700 families to be housed in hotels and motels.
Thirteen people died and tens of thousands of homes were damaged in the floods that arrived with pounding rains across southern Louisiana in the second week of August.
Many homes damaged in the flooding didn’t have flood insurance, according to the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, a business organization. The rising waters invaded parts of the region that had not flooded in a long time, and where FEMA didn’t consider flood insurance to be necessary. The group estimated that in the Baton Rouge area, 53,896 homes out of a total of 352,165 had flood insurance, only about 15% of the total, according to a report issued Tuesday.
The report estimated that 146,156 homes were hurt by the flooding.
During an afternoon stop, the president toured neighborhoods hit by flooding and spoke with local and state officials on the ground about how FEMA can help. Mr. Obama walked along residential streets, where the ruined contents of people’s homes lay strewn along the curbs, stopping to chat with local officials and homeowners who lost both possessions and precious keepsakes.
During brief remarks, the president said he came to offer “the prayers of the entire nation” as well as pledges of federal assistance.
“I know how resilient the people of Louisiana are, and I know that you will rebuild again,” he said.
The White House hoped the trip would underscore the federal government’s commitment to aid those affected by the deluge and also counter detractors who questioned why the president didn’t arrive sooner. While officials in Louisiana praised the federal response in Baton Rouge, Mr. Obama faced criticism for not interrupting his family vacation to make a public statement last week or to travel to flooded areas.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said at the time that a presidential visit could have been disruptive in the midst of ongoing recovery and rescue efforts. The White House said the federal government responded quickly to the flooding, and the president approved a federal disaster declaration. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson visited the state last week.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that Mr. Obama believes this is an appropriate time to put politics aside and focus on Americans’ shared responsibilities.
“The president is used to people trying to score political points even in situations where they shouldn’t,” Mr. Earnest said. “The president certainly believes this is the kind of situation where…we’re talking about lives lost; we’re talking about a community being upended.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R., La.) told reporters in Baton Rouge that Mr. Trump’s trip to Louisiana had focused national attention on the region.
“It doesn’t take a cynic to suggest that it may have triggered some other visits,” Mr. Cassidy said.
The president arrived as the area struggles to clean up. On Monday, the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness called for volunteers to clean muck and debris out of houses damaged by the flooding. It asked for individuals, church groups and organizations “to help our neighbors during their time of need.”
During his visit, Mr. Obama offered residents guidance on seeking help, rattling off phone numbers and website addresses of government agencies and other organizations that could provide assistance. He noted, though, the federal government alone couldn’t make people’s lives whole again, and he called for private donors and volunteers to help get families and local businesses back on their feet.
“I need all Americans to stay focused on this. If you’re watching this today, make sure that you find out how you can help,” the president said. “We’re going to need to stay on this because these are some good people down here.”
Patrick Mulhearn, executive director of Celtic Media Centre, the largest film and television production studio in Louisiana, opened up his 40-acre property in Baton Rouge on Aug. 13 to help flood victims and soon had more than 4,000 people there, he said. By Tuesday, the number had dwindled to about 400, he said. Many of those who stayed at the studio were poor to begin with, and the flood wiped out what little they had, he said.
“It is good to have them here, whether it’s Trump, Obama or Clinton coming, just so people realize what’s going on here,” he said. “Nobody was prepared for something like this. It’s going to take the full force of the federal government to get us back on our feet.”