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Biden pledges ‘whatever it takes as long as it takes’ in tornado-battered Kentucky

President Biden tours Mayfield, Ky. (Austin Anthony/for The Washington Post)
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DAWSON SPRINGS, Ky. — President Biden on Wednesday sought to console a region battered by deadly tornadoes and reassure its residents that the federal government will put its full weight behind rescue and recovery efforts in coming weeks.

“I intend to do whatever it takes as long as it takes — as long as it takes — to support your state,” Biden said in a speech here, standing in front of a smashed home and the twisted shell of a car damaged by last week’s extreme storms.

Speaking in the hometown of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s father, former governor Steve Beshear (D), Biden announced that the federal government would cover “100 percent of the cost” of the recovery efforts in Kentucky for the first 30 days, including debris removal, shelter and emergency personnel.

His remarks capped a day-long trip to Kentucky, the state that felt the brunt of last week’s extraordinary tornadoes. From the air and on the ground, Biden observed the destruction that has claimed at least 74 lives in Kentucky and left more than 100 people missing. He said the scope of the devastation — which included snapped tree trunks, gutted homes and businesses and roads dotted with rescue personnel — was “almost beyond belief.”

President Biden said the federal government would help Kentucky with 100 percent of its costs related to tornado damage during remarks on Dec. 15. (Video: The Washington Post)

The president aimed to hit personal notes at times, citing tragedies he has had to overcome in his own life. And throughout his visit, Biden made a clear effort to break free of the political fray that has often consumed the first year of his presidency — even as he visited a region that voted overwhelmingly for former president Donald Trump in 2020.

“There’s no red tornadoes, there’s no blue tornadoes,” Biden said at the start of a morning briefing with local officials. He said was impressed with how people pulled together at a moment of despair.

For Biden, the trip brought together some of the themes that have shaped a difficult first 11 months in office. Biden has frequently had to respond to natural disasters, from wildfires to hurricanes to flooding, and he has repeatedly underscored a desire to show that government can deliver results for people in their everyday lives.

The trip, though prompted by tragedy, offered a brief respite from the fierce partisan battles that have consumed Biden’s presidency in recent months. His approval ratings have plummeted amid struggles to enact landmark domestic spending bills, unite his own party behind his vision, combat the pandemic and deal with rising inflation and supply chain issues.

Republicans have seized on the economic turmoil this holiday season and the sharp polarization that has gripped the nation to blame Biden and his party for a tumultuous year. Polls and recent elections show that their arguments are resonating with many voters, including moderate independents key to Biden’s electoral win. Many Democrats are bracing for an electoral wipeout in next year’s midterms.

The strident partisanship that has seized the country was palpable, if muted. A pickup truck with a Trump flag was parked not far from where Biden spoke here. And down a main road, a storefront had a sign that said “Let’s Go Brandon,” the slogan that refers to a vulgar insult to the president and has become a conservative rallying cry.

Biden was accompanied by Rep. James Comer, a Republican who represents much of the area that was hit hard by last week’s tornadoes. And he came to the state after receiving praise from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a frequent critic who lauded him for cutting “through red tape to approve our requests at an accelerated pace.”

During the flight to Fort Campbell, Ky., Biden asked Comer what his district needed in the way of federal assistance and about the scope of the damage, while Comer rattled off a list of ways the government could help, the congressman recalled. He also urged the president and administration officials not to forget about his rural community in the coming months, when the area will certainly still be recovering from the damage.

“I appreciate that he wanted to come to Kentucky and see firsthand the damage,” Comer said in a phone interview. “I think seeing it helped paint a picture in his mind of how desperate the people are.”

The normally charged partisan fight over climate change was also more subdued. Scientists have attributed some recent extreme weather events to global warming, and Biden has repeatedly made urgent pleas to take steps to address climate change. But on Wednesday, he only briefly touched on his efforts to curtail climate change, mentioning the politically divisive topic after his remarks in response to a reporter’s question.

Experts have not drawn a direct line connecting tornadoes to climate change, but they have found that the warming planet is responsible for more frequent and more intense storms.

Speaking on wildfires, where there is a stronger connection between climate change, Biden bemoaned the damage the country has felt. “So much area has burned this year because of weather — climate — changes,” the president said. “So we’ve got a lot to do.”

While Biden vowed that his administration would step up in the recovery efforts, the president said there’s not an immediate need to have Congress appropriate more funding for the disaster cleanup.

Biden and his aides sought to underline the specific ways in which the federal government sprang quickly into action to free up resources for recovery, search and rescue efforts.

“The president’s message today is that he and the federal government intend to do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, by providing any support that is needed to aid recovery efforts and support the people of Kentucky and of other impacted states as they rebuild,” White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Air Force One.

She said the Federal Emergency Management Agency had deployed search and rescue teams and sent 61 generators to assist with power outages, as well as providing water, food, cots and other supplies. A wireless communications center was activated at the site of a deadly candle factory collapse in Mayfield.

While on the ground in Mayfield, Biden walked past wrecked buildings. At one point he stopped to speak to a woman sitting amid a pile of rubble. As he turned a corner, someone shouted a question about what he said to faith-based groups that had come to help.

“I say thank you. You’re doing God’s work,” Biden said.

Many Biden supporters have come to see him as something of a consoler in chief, whose abilities to grieve and comfort people whose lives have been tragically upended stand out among his peers. During a decades-long career in politics, Biden has been open about dealing with tragedy and grief in his personal life.

“There’s no words for the pain of losing someone,” he said Wednesday afternoon, stressing that it’s particularly difficult to face such loss during the holidays, which are typically a joyful time.

He referenced the loss that he’s endured, noting that his wife and infant daughter were killed in a car accident shortly before Christmas in 1972. The anniversary of their death is coming up in a matter of days.

“My mother, God love her, used to always say, ‘Out of every terrible something good will happen. Something good has to happen out of this,’ ” Biden said.

Amid the grim scenes and grieving, the president tried to also offer some hopeful notes.

“I promise you, you’re going to heal, we’re going to recover, we’re going to rebuild — you’re stronger than you were before,” he said. “You’re going to build back better than it was.”

And he repeatedly promised that his administration will keep tabs on the state and the recovery. “No one’s walking away,” he said. “We’re in this for the long haul.”

Linskey reported from Washington. Seung Min Kim in Washington contributed to this report.