WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama toured the flood-ravaged Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Tuesday, surveying wreckage that has also become a political football.
“We are heartbroken by the loss of life,” Obama said after seeing firsthand the damage in the state’s capital that has caused more than 106,000 residents and households to register for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. More than 60,000 homes were damaged, officials said, and 13 people were killed.
“I think anybody who can see just the streets, much less the inside of the homes here, people’s lives have been upended by this flood,” he added.
Obama is expected to meet with family members of police officers killed in last month’s Baton Rouge attack, a source with knowledge of the President’s schedule told CNN. According to the source, the families are expected to meet with him at one location during his trip. Three Baton Rouge area police officers were killed last month when they were ambushed by a gunman. That gunman, Gavin Long, was shot and killed by police.
Given the financial and human cost that has already taken its toll, the President’s visit is too late for some Republicans — and some Louisianans.
The city’s newspaper “The Advocate” originally criticized the President for not ending his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard immediately to visit the region.
His reluctance to do so made for offensive optics in the eyes of some Republicans: Obama enjoying rounds of golf with comedians like Larry David and basketball stars like Alonzo Mourning, while a state thousands of miles away faced devastation.
But the editorial board praised his decision to come Tuesday.
“We welcome news of President Barack Obama’s planned visit to Louisiana today to survey flood damage, which should help to advance relief and recovery in the disaster area as a national priority,” the editorial board wrote.
Press secretary Josh Earnest on Air Force One defended the timing of the trip, saying the “President is used to people trying to score political points even in situations where they shouldn’t.”
Earnest said that $120 million in aid has already been approved and is starting to be paid out to flood-impacted residents.
Trump, who visited the state shortly after the floods, called Obama’s visit “too late.”
“Tuesday’s too late,” Donald Trump, told Fox News this weekend. “Hop into the plane and go down and go to Louisiana and see what’s going on, because it’s a mess.”
That’s exactly what Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence, did late last week as part of a visit meant to fill what they saw as a leadership vacuum. The Republican ticket toured the flood damage, met with church groups, and distributed supplies at a nearby high school. The visit was well-received by local officials, and for a moment it gave Trump a chance to reveal a presidential timber that he insists he has.
“Because it helped to shine a spotlight on Louisiana and on the dire situation that we have here, it was helpful,” said John Bel Edwards, the state’s Democratic governor.
Edwards, who greeted Obama when he landed Tuesday, had previously said that he hoped the President would wait a few weeks before making his visit to the state, given the entourage and Secret Service personnel that comes with presidential trips that would have strained resources while officials were coping with the floods.
Baton Rouge’s city newspaper last week had called on Obama to cut his vacation short.
“A disaster this big begs for the personal presence of the President at ground zero,” read a editorial in The Advocate on Thursday, a day before the Obama trip was announced. “The President’s presence is already late to the crisis, but it’s better latter than never.”
Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent, said Monday that she too plans a trip to the flood site — but used similar reasoning to delay her trip. Her campaign said in a statement that she would come to the state at an unspecified time in the future.
“This month’s floods in Louisiana are a crisis that demand a national response,” she said. “I am committed to visiting communities affected by these floods, at a time when the presence of a political campaign will not disrupt the response, to discuss how we can and will rebuild together.”
Obama’s vacation ended Sunday, and the White House has maintained that he has been regularly briefed by senior staff on the situation on the ground and top administration officials also were sent to the Louisiana. Yet his response has earned some comparisons to how George W. Bush handled another natural catastrophe in a Louisiana city, New Orleans, during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Obama has traveled to disaster sites in recent years, touring communities in Oklahoma and Arkansas destroyed by tornadoes along with New Jersey towns hit by Hurricane Sandy.