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Obama on flood: This is not a photo-op issue
01:29 - Source: CNN

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"Tuesday's too late," Donald Trump said

Obama declined to cut his vacation short

Washington CNN  — 

President Barack Obama toured flood-ravaged Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Tuesday, surveying wreckage that has also become a political football.

“We are heartbroken by the loss of life,” Obama said after seeing firsthand the damage in the state’s capital that has caused more than 106,000 residents and households to register for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. More than 60,000 homes were damaged, officials said, and 13 people were killed.

“I think anybody who can see just the streets, much less the inside of the homes here, people’s lives have been upended by this flood,” he added.

President Barack Obama is greeted by Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser as Gov. John Bel Edwards, right, his wife, Donna, and Sen. David Vitter, left, look on at Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on August 23, 2016.

The flooding has created political headache for the White House as critics blasted Obama for being too slow to visit the state. He spent the previous week vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, while Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his vice presidential running mate, Mike Pence, visited the state and handed out supplies.

“Tuesday’s too late,” Trump told Fox News this weekend. “Hop into the plane and go down and go to Louisiana and see what’s going on, because it’s a mess.”

The city’s newspaper, “The Advocate,” originally criticized the President for not ending his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard immediately to visit the region. But the editorial board praised his decision to come Tuesday.

“We welcome news of President Barack Obama’s planned visit to Louisiana today to survey flood damage, which should help to advance relief and recovery in the disaster area as a national priority,” the editorial board wrote.

Trump’s visit was well-received by local officials, and for a moment it gave Trump a chance to reveal a presidential timber that he insists he has.

“Because it helped to shine a spotlight on Louisiana and on the dire situation that we have here, it was helpful,” said John Bel Edwards, the state’s Democratic governor.

CNN’s coverage of the Louisiana flooding

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Air Force One defended the timing of the trip, saying the “President is used to people trying to score political points even in situations where they shouldn’t.”

Earnest said that $120 million in aid has already been approved and is starting to be paid out to flood-impacted residents.

Edwards, who greeted Obama when he landed Tuesday, had previously said that he hoped the President would wait a few weeks before making his visit to the state, given the entourage and Secret Service personnel that comes with presidential trips that would have strained resources while officials were coping with the floods.

Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent, said Monday that she too plans a trip to the flood site. Her campaign said in a statement that she would come to the state at an unspecified time in the future.

“This month’s floods in Louisiana are a crisis that demand a national response,” she said. “I am committed to visiting communities affected by these floods, at a time when the presence of a political campaign will not disrupt the response, to discuss how we can and will rebuild together.”

Next problem for flood-ravaged Louisiana: Population loss

Obama meets with families of slain cops

Obama also met Tuesday with family members of police officers killed in last month’s Baton Rouge attack. Three Baton Rouge area police officers were killed last month when they were ambushed by a gunman. That gunman, Gavin Long, was shot and killed by police.

The meeting, which lasted a little more than 20 minutes and happened at a firehouse near a Baton Rouge airport, also took place with the family of Alton Sterling, who was fatally shot by police officers in the city last month.

Obama’s vacation ended Sunday, and the White House has maintained that he has been regularly briefed by senior staff on the situation on the ground and top administration officials also were sent to the Louisiana. Yet his response has earned some comparisons to how George W. Bush handled another natural catastrophe in a Louisiana city, New Orleans, during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Obama has traveled to disaster sites in recent years, touring communities in Oklahoma and Arkansas destroyed by tornadoes along with New Jersey towns hit by Hurricane Sandy.

Misery in Louisiana: See the most severe areas of impact

‘Pretty tough to swallow’

Residents such as Denham Springs’ Todd Krichel are still grappling with the scale of the destruction.

Krichel told CNN’s Nick Valencia he had lost a classic car he had been holding onto for years, a motorcycle he had been working on since the early 1980s and a family Bible from the late 1800s in the deluge.

“I pulled in this street this morning and a wave hit me and it just, I broke down, you know (what) I’m saying,” Krichel said outside his house. “It just, all my friends, family all our friends on this street, look at it. … And I pulled down there and it was pretty tough to swallow.”

Although Krichel said he did not want to evoke politics, he agreed Obama should have visited the stricken area earlier.

“I think it’s great that Trump came into town to show his support. I think that’s a good thing that he did that, to tell you the truth,” he said.

But while residents such as Baton Rouge’s Marie Sibley pleaded to Obama “to just help us,” others like Albany’s Catherine Murphy were less optimistic.

“There ain’t nothing he can do for us that Louisiana ain’t done for ourselves,” Murphy said. “I’ve got no help from the federal government. I ain’t asking for help from the government. Baby, let me tell you my community has come through.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included a photo that incorrectly identified Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter.

CNN’s Eugene Scott and Naomi Lim contributed to this report.