President Barack Obama, on his first tour of areas hit by Hurricane Irene, told residents of northern New Jersey that the federal government would provide “all the resources” necessary to help them recover.
“I want to make very clear that we are going to meet our federal obligations,” Obama said in flood-ravaged Paterson, New Jersey, with Governor Chris Christie at his side. “When one part of the country gets affected, whether it’s a tornado in Joplin, Missouri, or a hurricane that affects the eastern seaboard, then we come together as one country and make sure that everybody gets the help that they need.”
Obama, who also stopped in nearby Wayne, vowed there would be no slowdown in delivering aid. Christie, a Republican, has praised the federal response and told fellow party members in Congress not to hold up aid while looking for ways to offset the cost to the budget.
Irene made landfall on Aug. 27 in North Carolina, and was downgraded to a storm as it moved north to Mid-Atlantic states and New England. The storm and related flooding killed dozens of East Coast residents, damaging roads and buildings and cutting power to millions.
Obama has signed emergency declarations for Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
The president also is monitoring Tropical Storm Lee, which made landfall on the Louisiana coast and is hitting the state with heavy rain and wind, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters traveling with the president. Lee has shut more than half of the oil and natural gas production from the resource-rich Gulf of Mexico.
In New Jersey, there have been nine confirmed Irene-related deaths, according to Mary Goepfert, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Emergency Management. Three New Jersey residents died in other states, she said.
People in formerly flooded areas are returning to their homes as evacuation orders are being lifted, Goepfert said. All rivers in the state have crested and are receding. A week after the storm, 5,318 residences remained without power and 425 people were being housed in eight shelters.
New Jersey’s insured losses due to Irene totaled $751.4 million, and economic losses were $2.1 billion, according to Kinetic Analysis Corp., a Silver Spring, Maryland-based disaster-cost forecaster.
Scene in Paterson
Along Fayette Avenue in Wayne, New Jersey, pools of water remained in the street along with piles of debris and knocked over fences in front of houses.
“I know it’s a tough time right now,” Obama said to a group of local residents. “You guys hang in there, alright?”
The Passaic was still moving fast enough to churn up foam and the river swirled with currents as Obama toured the area. Some streets now dry near the Passaic look like an old western town after a dust storm, coated with the dirt left behind when the flooding receded.
Cab driver Geraldo Parrilla, who served tours in Iraq and Bosnia during 7 1/2 years in the Army, said the sump pumps in his house about a block from the still-swollen Passaic River weren’t able to keep up with the flooding from Irene. The storm poured more than four feet of water into the basement.
“We’ve been here 22 years and this is the first time it’s ever been this bad,” Parrilla, 35, said in an interview as he and family members cleaned out the basement. “I’d say it could be $35,000 easily. It’s hard. And the fact of the matter is we have no flood insurance. We couldn’t get it.”
Parrilla said Christie deserves credit for visiting the neighborhood Aug. 31, while the local response has lagged.
“You see who your true neighbors are and how local government reacts,” he said. “I wasn’t a Chris Christie fan but after the storm my opinion changed.”
Parrilla said he hoped Obama’s visit “puts pressure” on local officials.
The sound of generators and pumps resounded through the neighborhood as James Anthony, 39, cleaned out the six-bedroom home he shares with his mother on North Bridge Street about a block from the Lafayette Avenue Bridge and across the street from the river.
Rugs, a television and furniture stood on the sidewalk outside the home.
“This is all gone,” Anthony said. “We might get mold or something, so I’ve got to take everything down.”
He said he was buoyed by Obama’s visit.
“It’s really big for the president to come to Paterson,” said Anthony, who works for the department of public works in nearby Glen Rock. “Somebody on top cares about us. That’s never happened before.”
The Obama administration is seeking $5.2 billion from Congress for additional relief aid for disasters not including Irene. These include costs related to Hurricane Katrina of 2005, and tornadoes earlier this year in Missouri.
In a Sept. 1 letter to congressional appropriators, Jack Lew, the head of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said there is “no question” more money will be needed because of Hurricane Irene but it was too soon to know how much because rescue efforts were still under way and floodwaters were still rising.
“Providing disaster relief to our fellow Americans is a commitment that crosses all boundaries of geography and political party,” Lew said in his letter.
Six years after President George W. Bush drew blame for his administration’s slow initial response to Hurricane Katrina, Obama and emergency workers said they heeded Katrina’s lessons about the need for the federal government to respond preemptively and coordinate with state and local officials. Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005.
Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate and other officials readied federal assistance days ahead of Irene’s landfall and reached out to state and local officials. The president cut short his family vacation in Martha’s Vineyard by one night to get back to the White House before the hurricane came ashore.