NEW YORK – 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.
"The storm passes and sometimes attention turns elsewhere," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters traveling with the president aboard Air Force One. "But the fact is there's a lot of work that still needs to be done."
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 center, one of several in affected areas, as of Monday.
"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.
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.
Obama also planned to take a walking tour of a neighborhood affected by the storm. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both New York Democrats, traveled with the president aboard Air Force One.
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.
The White House said the president didn't visit New York then because he did not want to interfere with recovery efforts.