BATON ROUGE, La. — Nearly 11 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, President Obama’s visit with flood victims in Louisiana on Tuesday came once again at a fraught political moment.
Obama landed in Baton Rouge to see the devastation left by flooding in the last week, and to demonstrate, in part by his presence, that the federal government will deliver help to those who lost everything. He was met on the tarmac by Governor John Bel Edwards and other officials.
Later, standing amid rubble in front of flooded homes, the president lamented that so many people’s lives were upended by the flood waters that swept through communities with devastating force. But he praised the response and expressed optimism that the people of Baton Rouge would recover and thrive again.
“I know how resilient the people of Louisiana are, and I know you will rebuild again,” Obama, dressed in a blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up, said after touring several homes. He pledged that the federal government would support the victims of the community for the long run.
“These are some good people down here,” he said. “They got a lot of work to do, and they shouldn’t have to do it alone.”
Local and state officials from both political parties have praised the federal response in Baton Rouge, drawing a sharp contrast with the much-criticized delays by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Katrina.
Lieutenant Governor Billy Nungesser, a Republican who frequently criticizes Obama, said in an interview that federal officials had done “an excellent job” responding to the floods. “They’ve gotten good at it, and they actually do care,” he said.
But Obama arrived four days after Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, visited flood-ravaged areas around Baton Rouge. In a tweet Tuesday, Trump mocked the president for failing to cut short his Martha’s Vineyard vacation last week. “President Obama should have gone to Louisiana days ago, instead of golfing. Too little, too late!” Trump wrote.
Some Republicans and distraught locals have also criticized the president, for waiting more than a week to visit the tens of thousands of residents affected by the floods. More than 7,000 people were forced into 37 shelters across a vast stretch of the state by the rainfall, which has been blamed for 17 deaths.
“If the president can interrupt his vacation for a swanky fund-raiser for fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton, as he did on Monday, then surely he can make time to show up for a catastrophe that’s displaced thousands,” The Advocate, a local newspaper, wrote in an editorial last week.
Frustration over the president’s absence, merging with a widespread sense that the disaster has been unjustly overshadowed in media coverage of the Summer Olympics and the presidential election, has ranged from the hot anger of The Advocate editorial to a more subdued disappointment.
“When there’s a crisis anywhere and the federal government’s involved, there needs to be a presence,” said Evita Couvillion, 59, whose props, sets, and books from her 35 years as a school drama teacher were piled in black bags in front her flood-ruined home in Baton Rouge.
Officials should come in and roll up their sleeves and help, not just stay for a photo op, she said. “I’m thankful that they’re here,” she added of the presidential visit, but of the three hours scheduled, added: “That doesn’t seem like much.”
Florence Lucas, 79, was in an unusually disadvantaged position to judge the government’s response, having lost everything in Hurricane Betsy in 1965, lost her home during Katrina, and then had her home flooded this summer.
She stood in the kitchen as a construction worker discussed the rebuilding timeline, a needlepoint Home Sweet Home sign still hanging above the door to the hallway.
“Politics should be out of this,” Lucas said, adding that an earlier visit by the president would have just complicated the work of local responders and police.
Obama received a briefing from federal officials, state and local politicians, and emergency workers in the area. He toured East Baton Rouge parish, one of the area’s affected communities, and met with people whose homes have been lost to the waters.
Edwards, a Democrat, issued a statement after meeting with the president saying that he had formally requested additional help for his state.
“While we do not doubt the ability of our citizens to recover, we need the help of the federal government,” Edwards said in the statement. Edwards, who had urged the president not to visit the state when the rescue operation was in full swing, said the federal government so far has been “responsive to all of our requests.”
The White House has spent much of the last eight years trying to focus on disaster recovery for ordinary residents.
In 2009, when Obama made his first visit to New Orleans as president, he recognized the impatience of those affected by the hurricane and promised that “we are working as hard as we can, as quickly as we can” to help Katrina victims.