NEW YORK – President Barack Obama vowed Thursday to stick with New Yorkers still struggling 17 days after superstorm Sandy “until the rebuilding is complete” after getting an up-close look at devastated neighborhoods rendered unlivable.
Obama brought the spotlight to people still without heat or electricity and hugged many of those trying to rebuild their lives. He also delivered a postelection message of unity, nine days after a closely divided America gave him a second term.
“During difficult times like this, we’re reminded that we’re bound together and we have to look out for each other,” Obama said from a Staten Island street that was demolished by the storm. “And a lot of the things that seem important, the petty differences, melt away.”
Obama announced that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, a former chief of New York’s Housing Authority, will be his point person to oversee redevelopment.
On a three-hour tour, the president encountered many suffering in Sandy’s aftermath and waiting in lines for food, supplies and other help.
He also met with parents whose two young boys, Brandon and Connor Moore, were swept away by the storm. Damien and Glenda Moore’s children were among more than 100 people whose deaths were blamed on Sandy.
“I expressed to them, as a father, as a parent, my heartbreak over what they went through,” Obama said. He said the Moores were “still obviously a little shell-shocked” but wanted to thank the New York City police lieutenant who stayed with them until the bodies were found.
“That spirit and sense of togetherness and looking out for one another, that’s what’s going to carry us through this tragedy,” Obama said.
Before arriving on Staten Island, his helicopter flew over Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, including the waterfront community of Breezy Point, where roughly 100 homes burned to the ground in a massive wind-swept fire.
On Staten Island, Obama met with residents waiting in line at an emergency response center at New Dorp High School, where the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Small Business Administration, IRS, Red Cross and city agencies have set up tents to help survivors. The White House said about 1,500 people had received services at the center, one of several in affected areas, as of Monday.
People sought refuge from the cold on “warming buses” and the New York Fire Department provided hot showers. Insurance companies including Travelers and Allstate also had buses where people went to file claims.
The president hugged one woman at the business tent, asking where she was staying and if her loved ones were safe. He also visited a tent where food and toiletries were being distributed and thanked the workers and volunteers who came in from around the country. Several hundred people gathered nearby to see the president and shouted: “We love you!”
One girl collecting supplies who said her house is unlivable said: “We need help. He should have been here a long time ago.” That sentiment was shared by others, including Anthony Gatti, who said his home near the ocean was wrecked by Sandy.
“I think he should’ve been here a few days ago to see how much devastation we’ve had here,” said Gatti, who was hoping to get a FEMA trailer to live in with his parents while they find a new home. They lost everything they owned in the storm, he said.
Gatti said he has been standing in line all day, every day, waiting to speak with FEMA officials.
“If he could do something to make this process with the government a little faster and easier on us, that would be a great thing,” he said of Obama.
Obama was joined on the tour by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both New York Democrats, flew up with the president.
Cuomo said this week that he would request $30 billion in federal aid to rebuild.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said he couldn’t comment on the request because the administration hadn’t seen the details. He said the government will continue to do everything possible to cut red tape and help affected communities.
Blocks away from the president’s tour, Lily Wu, a 37-year-old mother of three, was cleaning dishes salvaged from the flooded, first floor of the home she bought three years ago. Wu, who is living in a friend’s basement with her family, said she hopes Obama might give storm victims a tax break to help them out. She said she doesn’t know if she’ll get any money from FEMA or her insurance company.
“If they could bail out the banks, they should bail us out, right?” Wu said. “I mean, all of us paid more than half a million dollars for these homes. They’re going to be worthless after this.”
Obama traveled to New Jersey on Oct. 31 to meet with Gov. Chris Christie and view recovery efforts in battered coastal communities. He saw flattened houses, flooded neighborhoods, sand-strewn streets and a fire burning along the coastline.
The White House said the president didn’t visit New York at the time so as not to interfere with recovery efforts.