“You know I get kind of beat up, criticized,” Biden said. “Things have changed so drastically in terms of the environment. You’ve already crossed a certain threshold. You can’t build back a road, a highway or a bridge to what it was before. You’ve got to build back to what it is now.”
The president pointed to the levee system around New Orleans, which was rebuilt in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as an example of smart infrastructure investment, saying it was “a lot of money — but think about how much money it saved.”
He also mentioned his daughter, Ashley, who attended college at Tulane University in New Orleans, saying she had urged him to visit the state.
On a later tour of a LaPlace neighborhood, Biden saw homes covered in blue tarps amid debris and uprooted trees. He hugged residents in sweltering heat as they showed him the damage. He then surveyed the damage from above in a helicopter.
Ida — the fifth-strongest hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland based on wind speed — knocked out power for more than 1 million customers in the New Orleans area and left at least two dozen dead. At least seven people were confirmed dead in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, and at least 44 more were confirmed dead in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, as Ida continued its journey north.
Biden’s home state of Delaware, where he plans to spend the weekend after his trip to New Orleans, was among the states experiencing major flooding. Biden said Friday that his home there was not damaged, as far as he knew, but noted the state itself was affected.
Biden’s focus on the natural disaster marked a shifting of crises, from those abroad — the United States’ complete withdrawal from Afghanistan this week — to those back home, offering the president slightly more comfortable terrain. But Biden has been eager to focus on a domestic infrastructure package, and Ida represents yet another emergency during the first year of his presidency.
Biden has deputized Cedric L. Richmond, a senior adviser to the president and former Louisiana congressman whose district included much of New Orleans, to oversee the relief effort, and Richmond accompanied him on his visit Friday. Biden, who said he has been speaking regularly with governors from the affected states, has also issued emergency declarations for Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and New York, and noted Thursday that his administration has deployed about 250 generators.
In remarks at the White House on Thursday, the president offered reassurances for those in the hard-hit communities while also acknowledging the challenging rebuilding task that awaits.
“My message to everyone affected is we’re all in this together,” Biden said Thursday. “The nation is here to help.”
He reiterated just how thoroughly Ida decimated parts of at least a half-dozen states, speaking of a storm surge and flooding, as well as reports of winds up to 170 mph, which caused “unimaginable damage.”
“We know that there’s much to be done in this response on our part,” he said. “We need to get power restored. We need to get more food, fuel and water deployed.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, he added, also pre-positioned more than 3 million liters of water and more than 4.3 million meals in the Gulf Coast region before the storm hit, to help expedite the recovery.
Louisiana officials including Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), Sens. Bill Cassidy (R) and John Neely Kennedy (R), Rep. Steve Scalise (R) and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell (D) greeted Biden at the airport.
Speaking Thursday, the president said he had asked the Federal Communications Commission to work with the White House to ensure cellphone companies allow customers to use roaming services in affected areas where their particular carrier’s transmission may be damaged or out of service.
“Just think of the sons and the daughters and the moms and dads and loved ones trying to reach each other in the feeling of fear or maybe something happened and it’s just because they can’t — the cellphone’s not working,” Biden said. “Think of the millions of people reaching out for help. This is important and it’s critical.”
Biden also implored private insurance companies to cover the hotel costs of residents who fled their homes for their safety, even if they were not specifically following an evacuation order.
“Don’t hide behind the fine print and technicality — do your job,” Biden said. “Keep your commitments to your communities that you insure. Do the right thing, and pay your policyholders what you owe them to cover the cost of temporary housing in the midst of a natural disaster.”