President Obama, visiting southern Louisiana 10 days after record floods ravaged the region, said Tuesday the nation was “heartbroken” at the devastation and vowed the country would help rebuild -- while brushing off criticism for not cutting short his Martha's Vineyard vacation to visit earlier.
“We’re going to help you,” the president said, after touring one hard-hit community in East Baton Rouge Parish. “The reason I can say that with confidence is because that’s what Americans do. I know how resilient the people of Louisiana are and I know that you will rebuild again.”
Just before Obama touched down, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump called the visit "too little, too late."
But Obama defended the federal response, vowing federal aid to the community and saying "nobody gives a hoot" about politics during a disaster.
“One of the benefits of being five months short of leaving here is I don’t worry too much about politics,” he said.
Some parts of southern Louisiana got soaked with three inches or more of rain in a single hour. In all, between Aug. 11 and Aug. 14, more than 20 inches of rain saturated southeast Louisiana. Thirteen people died and nearly 61,000 homes in 20 parishes have been damaged or destroyed.
As of Monday, 3,075 Louisiana residents remained in emergency shelters as state and federal officials scrambled to find housing.
The sheer magnitude of the destruction – which drew comparisons to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 – prompted the Federal Emergency Management Agency to extend a grace period to renew lapsed flood insurance policies for parts of Louisiana.
On Monday, the White House was forced to defend Obama’s decision not to visit the state sooner. Press Secretary John Earnest told reporters the president stayed away so he could focus on the federal response rather than exploit the situation for a photo op.
Trump and his running mate Mike Pence visited the area on Friday, unloading supplies and speaking to flood victims in Gonzales, La.
On Tuesday, Trump tweeted: "President Obama should have gone to Louisiana days ago, instead of golfing. Too little, too late!"
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has not been to Louisiana but said Monday in a statement she will visit the state sometime in the future.
“I am committed to visiting communities affected by these floods, at a time when the presence of a political campaign will not disrupt the response, to discuss how we can and will rebuild together," she said.
En route to Louisiana, Earnest said the federal government has approved $120 million in assistance for flood victims. The White House said Obama is willing to assume criticism about “optics” as long as the federal response is up to par.
Nearly 11 years ago, Hurricane Katrina's crippling of New Orleans and the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama demonstrated how political leaders cannot afford to underestimate the gravity of responding to natural disasters with force and immediacy.
In 2005, then-President George W. Bush was faulted by critics for flying over but not touching down in Louisiana in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The White House on Monday pointed to praise for the federal government from the state's Democratic governor and Republican lieutenant governor as evidence of an effective response.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who took office this year, said he suggested to Obama and presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett that they delay a trip to Louisiana until the initial disaster response was over.
Obama signed a disaster declaration on Aug. 14 that makes federal funding available for assistance such as grants for temporary housing and home repairs, and low-cost loans to cover losses for uninsured property. He subsequently dispatched FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to the region.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.