Louisiana paper to Obama: Cut vacation short

Posted at 9:23 AM, Aug 18, 2016

EDGARTOWN, Massachusetts — Amid historic devastation in Louisiana, the state’s largest daily newspaper is calling on President Barack Obama, who is being kept abreast of the situation by White House officials, to cut his Martha’s Vineyard getaway short to view flood-ravaged areas of the state.

“A disaster this big begs for the personal presence of the President at ground zero,” read the editorial published in The Advocate on Thursday. “In coming here, the President can decisively demonstrate that Louisiana’s recovery is a priority for his administration — and the United States of America.”

“The President’s vacation is scheduled to wrap up on Sunday. But he should pack his bags now, and pay a call on communities who need to know that in a national catastrophe, they are not alone,” read the column. “The President’s presence is already late to this crisis, but it’s better later than never.”

Calling Obama’s vacation destination “a playground for the posh and well-connected,” the paper said that the waters had receded enough to allow for a presidential visit.

Before emerging from his vacation compound Wednesday for a round of golf, Obama spoke with FEMA administrator Craig Fugate, who had been dispatched to view the damage caused by two feet of rain which fell at the end of last week.

On Thursday, Obama’s Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson was set visit the region to “review the ongoing response,” the White House said.

But as of Thursday morning, there were no announced plans for Obama to cut his vacation short, nor was Obama planning to address the flooding in an in-person statement.

Earlier in the week, Obama phoned the state’s governor, John Bel Edwards, shortly after approving the Democrat’s request for federal disaster funding. The White House said Obama’s top homeland security official Lisa Monaco, traveling with him on Martha’s Vineyard, was updating him on new developments, along with other aides.

The federal assistance structure is the result of an overhaul after a widely maligned response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Congress passed legislation a year after the storm that allowed FEMA to work more closely with local and state governments in administering aid.

Like Obama, President George W. Bush was on vacation as Katrina devastated parts of Louisiana. He cut his stay at his Texas ranch short by two days to return to Washington — assessing the flooding from above on Air Force One during the return trip. Despite those efforts, Bush’s response to Katrina was viewed as inadequate, and Bush himself acknowledged the period inflicted lasting damage on his reputation as commander in chief.

In the editorial on Thursday, The Advocate warned Obama against repeating Bush’s mistakes.

“We’ve seen this story before in Louisiana, and we don’t deserve a sequel,” the paper wrote. “In 2005, a fly-over by a vacationing President George W. Bush became a symbol of official neglect for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The current president was among those making political hay out of Bush’s aloofness.”

When presidents travel on vacation, the job of running the federal government is never far away. Aides and secure communication equipment are all moved to the getaway destination to ensure that updates and briefings can continue apace.

Obama has been loath to interrupt his vacations for public appearances, however, and said during a Monday night fundraiser for Hillary Clinton that first lady Michelle Obama typically insists he avoid working.

“Michelle is very strict about me actually taking a vacation when I get a vacation,” he said. “She gave me a special dispensation for this evening because she understands, just as all of you understand, how important this is.”

The newspaper editorial said Thursday that “if the President can interrupt his vacation for a swanky fundraiser for fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton, as he did on Monday, then surely he can make time to show up for a catastrophe that’s displaced thousands.”

The paper praised the work of FEMA, calling it a “far cry” from the bungled response to Katrina. The agency said on Wednesday it was providing federal aid to assist with rental payments for temporary housing, grants for home repairs and property replacement, unemployment assistance for Louisiana residents who lost jobs due to the flooding, and assistance to small businesses affected by the rising waters.

More than 70,000 people had registered for individual assistance since the federal disaster was declared, and more than 9,000 had filed flood insurance claims, according to the federal disaster agency.

Obama’s formula for responding to federal disasters has remained largely the same in the past several years, typically including a phone call to the governor and approval of requests for federal assistance. In some cases, he’s traveled to communities hit by natural disasters, including viewing tornadoes in Oklahoma and Arkansas, and viewed destruction in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy.