BATON ROUGE — President Obama toured a flood-damaged neighborhood here Tuesday and urged Americans to rally behind residents, many of whom have complained in recent days of feeling forgotten.
The floods that hit the Baton Rouge region killed 13 and have been described as the worst natural disaster in the United States since Hurricane Sandy in 2012. But they have not received as much news coverage as that crisis.
“Sometimes, once the floodwaters pass, people’s attention spans pass,” Obama said. “This is not a one-off, this is not a photo-op issue . . . this is how we make sure a month from now, three months from now, six months from now, people are still getting the help they need.”
So far, more than 100,000 people in Louisiana have applied for federal assistance. The government, meanwhile, has set aside $127 million to help those displaced find temporary housing, pay for home repairs and collect flood insurance. But the president cautioned that federal relief alone wouldn’t be enough to replace the losses.
Before leaving Baton Rouge, Obama also met with the family of Alton Sterling, a black man fatally shot by police in an incident that reignited the debate over policing and race in America, as well as with the families of slain and injured officers of the Baton Rouge Police Department and East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office, White House officials said.
Obama landed in Louisiana on a stiflingly humid day and walked through one of the Baton Rouge area’s hardest-hit neighborhoods, where residents were mourning friends and relatives, hauling away debris and helping each other.
The president described one elderly woman who had lost her daughter and was living alone. She was being helped by the son of one of her neighbors.
He said he spoke with another young woman whose husband had died shortly after the birth of her second child. The woman told Obama that her daughter was trying to salvage keepsakes from her flood-damaged room that reminded her of her father.
“This is not just about property damage,” Obama said. “It is about people’s roots.”
Obama was criticized by Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, and the Baton Rouge newspaper for not cutting short his vacation plans last week in Martha’s Vineyard and rushing to view the flood damage or offer condolences.
In Baton Rouge, where the focus was on the cleanup, Obama had ditched his blazer and donned hiking shoes. He said his visit had nothing to do with politics. “When disasters strike, that’s probably one of the few times where Washington tends not to get political,” he said. “I guarantee you nobody on this block, none of those first responders, nobody gives a hoot whether you’re Democrat or Republican. What they care about is making sure they’re getting the drywall out and the carpet out, and there’s not any mold building. . . . That’s what they care about. That’s what I care about.”
Obama’s motorcade ferried him from the airport to the Castle Place subdivision in Zachary, a short drive away. In the streets were furniture, toys and mattresses, and an entire piano. Two doors down from the driveway where the president spoke, someone had written “Help” seven times on the panes of glass in front of their house.
“It’s real good that he did show up,” said Quincy Snowden, 33, who talked with Obama. “I believe that it brought more attention to everything that did go on down here.”
Snowden and his neighbors told the president that the water in their houses rose to nearly four feet.
“That’s why you gotta listen when they tell you to get out,” Obama said.
Obama moved through the neighborhood, hugging residents in their driveways. “How y’all doing?” he was heard saying more than once, saying, “I know it’s tough now,” and “I wish I was coming in better times.”
He talked with Pernell Parker, 20, who wore rubber gloves as he worked to remove his flood-
“He even came to walk through the house and see the damage,” Parker said. “He asked me about the damage and about how everything is going in terms of getting back to normalcy.”
Just a mile from the airport where Obama landed, Eugene and Loretta Warren worked with their two sons to lug their flooded possessions — a microwave, their 2-year-old grandson’s toys, an entire dining set — to the curb. The home they rent here took on four feet of water, and the family is currently living in a shelter.
But the elder Warren and his wife were hopeful about Obama’s visit. “Maybe it might speed things up,” he said. “It might help.”
In his brief remarks, Obama focused on making sure the flood victims received not just federal help, but also assistance from private charities and volunteers.
“The whole country is going to continue to support you and help you until we get folks back in their homes and lives are rebuilt,” Obama said. “That’s what Americans do in times like this.”
Cusick is a freelance writer.