NEW ORLEANS - Taking a detour from his campaign battleground tour, President Obama today surveyed a Louisiana neighborhood hit hard by the floods of Hurricane Isaac, reassuring victims of federal recovery aid and hailing the first responders who ensured no lives were lost.
Obama got a first-hand look at the devastation in St. John the Baptist Parish, one of the hardest hit in the storm, situated roughly 30 miles west of downtown New Orleans.
His motorcade passed streets lined with mounds of debris, uprooted trees, ruined furniture and appliances piled in yards and along the curb. The air smelled of trash and sewage as it baked in the 100-degree heat. He later went house to house in the Ridgewood neighborhood of La Place, shaking hands with residents and hearing their stories.
"There is enormous faith here, enormous strength here," Obama said after his tour. "You can see it with these families - they were just devastated a few days ago and they are already smiling and laughing and feeling confident about the future and pulling together."
Disaster response coordinators who briefed Obama on the recovery effort said that facilitating the return of more than 3,900 evacuees to St. John's Parish and providing them with temporary housing and transportation remains the most urgent challenge. Officials said they were also scrambling to reopen public facilities, like schools and fire stations.
"Right now we're still in recovery mode. And that means that our biggest priority is helping to house people who have been displaced," Obama said.
"We're also going to make sure at the federal level that we are getting on the case very quickly on figuring out what exactly happened here and making sure it doesn't happen again," he added, referring to the failure of a local levee meant to protect the area.
Flooding caused by Isaac was unprecedented and unexpected for St. John's Parish, flowing in quickly from two directions at the height of the storm and cutting off access on Interstate 10.
"Some of the folks we just walked by literally had to be saved by boat. They were in their homes trapped, the waters came in so quickly. And this is an area that hadn't been flooded in 17 years, so as a consequence folks just weren't anticipating and accustomed to the scale and scope of the destruction," Obama said. "But because of the great work of law enforcement, National Guard, Coast Guard, making sure that folks were out in rescue mode rapidly… no lives were lost."
Obama flew to New Orleans after attending a Labor Day campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio, part of a tour leading to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., which begins Tuesday. He had planned to continue across the state for a second event in Cleveland, but cut the trip short to head south instead.
The president denied political motivations behind his trip, telling first responders and members of the press that visits to disaster areas are "not just for photo-ops" - a point he later underscored in live, televised remarks.
"When disasters like this happen, we set aside whatever petty disagreements we may have," Obama said. "Nobody's a Democrat or Republican. We're all just Americans looking out for one another."
A bipartisan contingent of state and federal leaders accompanied Obama for the visit, including Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, a top surrogate for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and FEMA administrator Craig Fugate. Democrats Sen. Mary Landrieu and Rep. Cedric Richmond and Republicans Sen. David Vitter and Rep. Jeff Landry also joined the presidential tour.