President Barack Obama got his first look Thursday at the devastation that superstorm Sandy waged on New York City, with a helicopter tour above flood-ravaged and burned-out sections of Queens and Staten Island.
Two and a half weeks after the massive East Coast storm displaced New Yorkers, thousands of whom remain without power, Obama took an aerial tour that included Breezy Point, a waterfront community in Queens where roughly 100 homes were burned in a massive fire. Below Marine One, blue tarps covered some homes instead of roofs and debris was scattered across neighborhoods still drying out after the storm.
"We're reminded that we are bound together and we have to look out for each other," Obama said from a block in Staten Island that was demolished by the storm. "The petty differences melt away."
Obama announced that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, former chief of New York's Housing Authority, will be his point person to oversee long-term rebuilding in the region.
Obama met privately with Damien and Glenda Moore, whose young sons, Brandon and Connor, died after being swept away in the storm. The boys were two of more than 100 victims who lost their lives.
'Obviously I expressed to them as a father, as a parent, my heartbreak over what they went through' —U.S. President Barack Obama
"Obviously 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 a little shell shocked" but wanted to thank the New York City police lieutenant who stayed with them and supported them until their boys' bodies were found.
"That spirit and that sense of togetherness carry us through," Obama said.
After the helicopter tour, Obama met with people waiting in line at an emergency response center at Staten Island's New Dorp High School, where the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Small Business Administration, IRS, Red Cross and city agencies have tents to help survivors. The White House said about 1,500 people had received services at the centre, one of several in affected areas, as of Monday.
He 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!"
'It's about time he gets here'
But one girl collecting supplies who said her house is unlivable said of the president: "We need help. He should of been here a long time ago."
Staten Island resident Anthony Gatti agreed. Standing in front of his wrecked home down the street from the ocean, Gatti said he's grateful for the president's visit but wished it had happened sooner.
"I think it's about time he gets here," said Gatti, who was hoping to get a FEMA trailer to live in with his parents while they all find a new place to live. "I think he should've been here a few days ago to see how much devastation we've had here."
Gatti said he has been standing on line all day, every day, waiting to speak with FEMA officials. His family's home will be demolished in the coming weeks. They lost everything they owned in the storm.
"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 traveled to New Jersey on Oct. 31 to meet with Gov. Chris Christie and view recovery efforts in coastal communities. He viewed flattened houses, flooded neighborhoods, sand-strewn streets and a still-burning fire along the state's battered coastline. Parts of the New Jersey shore's famed boardwalks were missing.
$30 billion to rebuild
The White House said the president didn't visit New York then because he did not want to interfere with recovery efforts.
Obama also went on a walking tour of New Dorp's Cedar Grove Avenue, where most of the buildings were boarded up and homes were destroyed. He stopped in front of Saint George Malankara Orthodox Church of India, where stained glass windows were broken and a greenhouse two doors down was off its foundation and gutted.
"Warming buses" were available for people to take refuge from the cold and hot showers were provided by the New York Fire Department. Insurance companies including Travelers and Allstate also had buses to take claims.
Obama was joined by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both New York Democrats, traveled with the president aboard Air Force One.
Cuomo said earlier this week he plans to request $30 billion in federal aid to rebuild, including for improvements such as the construction of a power grid meant to buttress utilities' ability to find and fix outages. It would also upgrade New York City's fuel supply capacity to help prevent consumer shortages and bring new oil and gas pipelines from New England to reduce dependence on shipping the fuel. Long lines at gas stations led to alternate-day rationing in both New York and New Jersey after the storm.
Carney said the administration still hasn't received details of that request so he couldn't respond to it specifically. He said the federal government will continue to do everything it can to cut red tape and help affected communities rebuild.