TOLEDO, OHIO – Before introducing the man at the top of the ticket at an economic forum on the roof of the Toledo Public Library Sunday, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., asked supporters to pray for those about the feel the wrath of Hurricane Gustav.
"It’s a magnificent day today, but a lot of our friends down in New Orleans, where my daughter went to school, are battened down for something that may be even more devastating than what happened in Katrina,” Biden said. “Pray God it won’t. At mass this morning, 7:15 mass, I along with a lot of other people prayed for those folks down there, so I mean it sincerely.”
It’s a tricky thing, asking for votes at jubilant campaign rallies while thousands of miles South a natural disaster looms. Biden and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., have decided to handle it by mentioning Gustav frequently on the campaign trail, activating supporters, phoning federal, state, and local officials to be debriefed and to offer help – and otherwise to campaign as previously scheduled.
“I hope it doesn’t sound corny, but say a little prayer,” Biden continued in Toledo. “Say a little prayer, because these folks have been through, you know, they’ve been through hell. And pray God this Gustav decides to take a turn or something but it doesn’t look real good now.”
Obama earlier in the day mentioned Gustav as well.
“There is enormous urgency in making sure that people take the evacuation seriously,” he told reporters after leaving church in Lima, Ohio.
To that end, Obama called in to four New Orleans, La., TV stations and one radio station to urge residents to leave.
“It appears that we have made progress and the coordination among state, local, and federal governments are better than with Katrina,” Obama told WGNO-TV, the ABC News affiliate. He said his “main message is for everybody to follow instructions, you must evacuate, you can’t take a chance. If you do not evacuate, you put yourself and others in danger.”
Obama has continued to hammer away at the positions taken by his rival Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, on issues such as the economy. A big, jubilant campaign rally was held Saturday night in Dublin, Ohio; another one will be held this evening in Battle Creek, Michigan.
But Obama has assiduously avoided anything that could be interpreted as politicizing the storm.
As recently as Thursday night’s nomination acceptance speech Thursday night Obama was hammering the Bush administration for its inadequate response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita – “We are more compassionate,” he said, “than a government…that sits on its hands while a major American city drowns before our eyes” – today his comments were all about how the government has learned its lessons.
He has in the past attacked McCain for opposing various post-Katrina funding bills, but today he told WGNO-TV that he and McCain agree on pushing FEMA for immediate relief for the area.
Asked if McCain’s visit to the region was appropriate, Obama said, “I think that with a big storm like this raises bipartisan concerns and I think for John to want to find out what is going on is fine.”
As for whether or not he would visit, Obama said, “The thing that I am always concerned about is, in the middle of the storm is, whether we are drawing resources away from folks on the ground, because the Secret Service and various security requirements sometimes it pulls police and fire and other departments away from concentrating on the job. I am assuming that where (McCain) went that wasn’t an issue and we are going to try to stay clear of the area until things have settled down and then we will probably try to figure out how we can be as helpful as possible.”
Over the weekend, Obama has phoned Louisiana Gov Bobby Jindal, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, Sen. Mary Landrieu, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and FEMA director David Paulison. Aides said he was mainly trying to learn the latest about the path of the storm, gauge the work that had been done to help evacuate the old, infirm, and people with special needs, and to assess how well federal, state and local authorities are cooperating.
The Democrat also offered any assistance he could, though practically speaking there is little a first-term junior senator from Illinois can do right now.
Obama today said he called upon on his network of volunteers and donors to mobilize to help citizens of the Gulf Coast.
“Since we’ve got a network of volunteers, donors all across the country is to try to coordinate with officials to figure out what will be most useful if we can get volunteers, if we can get donations where they can be directed,” he told reporters. “We probably won’t know entirely who needs the most help and what is the best way to do it without getting in people’s way, until we actually see what happens over the next 48 hours.”
By early afternoon, a blog post on the Obama-Biden website told supporters how they could help.