Obama Visits Louisiana Floods as White House Rejects Critics

(Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama headed for flooded Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Tuesday, four days after the Republican who wants his job flew into the city and chided the president for remaining on vacation during the disaster.

Obama’s visit to the flood zone, normally a routine presidential exercise, has become politically freighted thanks to his decision not to interrupt his annual Martha’s Vineyard vacation, criticism by Republican Donald Trump and the Baton Rouge newspaper, and memories of the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The White House has batted away Trump’s criticism and comparisons with Katrina, calling the government’s response to the flooding robust. On Monday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest praised the work of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, pointed to compliments for FEMA from Republican Louisiana officials and responded sharply when asked if Trump’s criticism had spurred Obama to visit.

"Of course not," Earnest said at a White House briefing.

Severe Storms

The Louisiana floods were caused by one of the most severe U.S. storms in recent years, damaging an estimated 40,000 homes and leaving tens of thousands of people homeless. As of Friday, more than 95,000 people had registered for individual assistance and more than 22,000 people had filed flood claims, according to FEMA.

FEMA has more than 1,100 personnel on the ground, including 560 housing inspectors and hundreds more on the way. More than $16.7 million has already been approved for temporary housing and emergency repairs for disaster survivors. Earnest said on Tuesday that $120 million in federal assistance has been made available.

Trump and his running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, visited Baton Rouge on Friday. The Republican nominee’s criticism of Obama echoed an editorial last week by The Advocate, Baton Rouge’s local newspaper, that demanded Obama cut short his vacation to visit the region. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said Sunday on CNN that Trump’s visit was helpful because it drew attention to the disaster.

"The president is used to people trying to score political points even in situations where they shouldn’t," Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One on Tuesday. "The president believes this is the kind of situation where when we’re talking about lives lost, when we’re talking bout a community being upended, that it’s an appropriate time to put politics aside."

During his vacation, Obama declared a state of emergency in Louisiana, spoke by phone with local officials and dispatched Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to visit the area. He has said that he avoids visiting disaster zones immediately because his presence requires local police and other resources that are better used helping victims recover.

Edwards said in a news conference on August 18 that last week, immediately after the flooding, was not a good time for Obama to visit.

Katrina Memories

“It’s Louisiana officials, both Democrats and Republicans, who are saying that the federal response to these floods in Baton Rouge have been much more effective than the federal response to hurricane Katrina in 2005,” Earnest told reporters Monday.

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama criticized the disaster response of the Bush administration. His predecessor, President George W. Bush, was criticized for not going to Louisiana and other areas hit by Katrina soon after the hurricane made landfall. In his book, “Decision Points,” Bush said he regretted not visiting New Orleans sooner.

Craig Fugate, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has “professionalized” the agency, making it more effective than it was in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when thousands of people were left without adequate food or appropriate shelter, Earnest told reporters.

Obama will meet with Edwards and Louisiana’s Republican Lieutenant Governor Bill Nungesser on Tuesday, Earnest said. Nungesser, a frequent Obama critic, is among Louisiana officials who have praised FEMA’s response to the flooding.