Obama surveys damage in storm-stricken New Jersey

Sep 4, 2011, 10:51 a.m.
U.S. President Barack Obama gets a hug from a boy upon his arrival in Newark, New Jersey September 4, 2011. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Matt Spetalnick

PATERSON, New Jersey (Reuters) - President Barack Obama pledged on Sunday to do everything possible to help flood-stricken New Jersey and other states recover as he got a first-hand look at some of the damage from Hurricane Irene.

With rain-swollen rivers receding in the Northeast after the region suffered its worst flooding in decades, Obama got a first-hand look at the disaster response in the working-class city of Paterson, one of hardest-hit from the storm.

The Democratic president was joined by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a budget-cutting Republican who has bucked some of his party's fiscal hawks in Washington by calling for expedited federal aid to help his state's recovery.

"HELP US" said a large hand-lettered sign held aloft by a group of children as Obama's motorcade sped past. On the route to Paterson, soggy furniture and possessions were heaped in piles along the street while water was still being pumped out of some homes.

At his first stop in a poor neighborhood in the town of Wayne, Obama paused to console homeowners, telling them the federal government would do everything possible to help them.

"I know it's a hard time right now," Obama told a group of residents clustered around him on the street. "You guys hang in there. We'll do everything we can to help you."

Irene cut a swathe of destruction from North Carolina to Vermont and was blamed for at least 40 deaths. Total economic losses have been estimated at more than $10 billion.

New Jersey was especially hammered by flooding in the storm's wake last week. The floodwaters swept away homes, swamped roads and bridges and left hundreds of thousands without electricity.

Paterson now faces a massive cleanup after the Passaic River overflowed its banks in the center of the city of 150,000, dealing the latest blow to a one-time industrial powerhouse that has since fallen on hard times.

Obama officially declared New Jersey a disaster area on Wednesday, making the state eligible for federal disaster aid.

He is expected to ask Congress for extra funds to help recover from Irene, but Washington's unrelenting budget battle -- and a deepening ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats over the role of government -- could complicate relief efforts.


White House spokesman Jay Carney said it was critical to avoid playing politics with the storm response.

"When disaster strikes, Americans suffer -- not Republicans, not Democrats, not independents -- and we come together," he told reporters traveling with Obama.

Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House of Representatives said last week that any new disaster aid must be offset with spending cuts elsewhere to avoid adding to the budget deficit, projected to hit $1.3 trillion this year.

But Christie, a rising Republican star and blunt-talking fiscal conservative who has repeatedly denied any interest in seeking his party's 2012 presidential nomination, has called for immediate assistance for his state.

He has insisted that New Jersey cannot wait while lawmakers in Washington fight over budget offsets.

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