There was hand holding. There were pats on the head. And there were hugs— a lot of hugs. As Joe Biden walked through Dawson Springs, Kentucky on Wednesday, he passed homes ground down to piles of drywall and bricks, cars flipped upside down, and trees strewn with shreds of wall insulation.
He was running about an hour behind his official schedule as he made time to stop for long chats with residents whose bedrooms they had been sleeping in a week ago were now mounds of rubble. “I’m sorry to keep you all waitin’, but I got a chance to hang out with the whole extended family,” Biden told reporters as he introduced cousins Dane Maddox, 7, and Abby Parker, 21, who lived through the violent storms.
The chain of more than 30 tornadoes and severe storms that ripped through Kentucky and eight surrounding states over the weekend killed least 90 people and flattened factories and entire towns. Scientists have warned that such extreme weather events will be come more frequent as human activity pumps more carbon into the atmosphere. The weather left “our landscape almost unrecognizable,” said Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, who brought Biden to his father’s hometown of Dawson Springs. “You might think that we are broken but we are not,” Beshear said.
Presidents can bring vast resources and attention to a disaster, and Biden promised all of that as he visited residents whose homes and communities were destroyed. During the visit he agreed to a request from Beshear to expand the federal disaster declaration Biden had already approved, opening up federal funds to cover all eligible costs for debris removal, temporary shelters and emergency services for 30 days.
It’s not always a straightforward decision when to show up. When Presidents visit disaster areas, their staff often delay their visit so the logistics required to host the President doesn’t disrupt ongoing efforts to save lives and restore services that have been wiped out, says Craig Fugate, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under President Barack Obama. George W. Bush was criticized for not visiting New Orleans until several days after the city flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which Bush said was an attempt not to complicate the relief effort.
But being there in person is important, says Fugate. He recalls traveling with then-Vice President Biden to visit the town of Duryea, Pennsylvania after a major flood in 2011. Then, too, Biden spent so much time talking to people as he walked through the town, a few miles from where he grew up in Scranton, that the trip got behind schedule. “We call them the commander in chief, but at times like this, it’s the consoler in chief,” Fugate says. “It sends a signal that the federal government is here and we ain’t leaving, even when the cameras leave.”
Biden’s visit on Wednesday took him out of Washington at a critical juncture for his major legislative push to pass social spending measures to reduce the cost of elder care and child care and expand steps to address climate change, which is looking less and less likely to pass before the holiday break as he had hoped.
But Biden didn’t spend much time talking about the haggling underway on Capitol Hill. As he toured the 200-mile-wide gash left behind by the storms, Biden tried instead to assure residents the government wouldn’t forget them. “Keep the faith—we’re going to get this done,” Biden told a group of families gathered near the President’s entourage of reporters, security and local officials. “No one’s walking away. We’re in this for the long haul.”
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