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HILLSBOROUGH TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Pointing accusingly at climate change, President Joe Biden toured deadly Northeast flood damage Tuesday and said he was thinking about the all families who suffered “profound” losses from the powerful remnants of Hurricane Ida.
Biden was in New Jersey, and planned to visit New York City, to survey the aftermath and call for federal spending to fortify infrastructure to better defend people and property from future storms in the region and far beyond.
“Every part of the country, every part of the country is getting hit by extreme weather,” Biden said in a briefing at the Somerset County emergency management training center attended by federal, state and local officials, including New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.
Biden said the threat from wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding and other extreme weather must be dealt with in ways that will lessen the devastating effects of climate change.
“We can’t turn it back very much, but we can prevent it from getting worse,” he said. Biden added that scientists have been warning for decades that this day would come and that urgent action was needed.
“We don’t have any more time,,” he said.
Biden’s plan to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure nationwide is pending in Congress.
“I’m hoping to be able to see the things we are going to be able to fix permanently with the bill that we have in for infrastructure,” he said as he left the White House.
On the way to the briefing, Biden’s motorcade drove through a neighborhood where piles of damaged furniture, mattresses and other household items were stacked outside homes. The route also included many supporters of Republican former President Donald Trump with signs opposing Biden.
Focusing on the personal calamities, Biden said, “The losses that we witnessed today are profound. … My thoughts are with all those families affected by the storm and all those families who lost someone they love.”
At least 50 people were killed in six Eastern states as record rainfall last week overwhelmed rivers and sewer systems. Some people were trapped in fast-filling basement apartments and cars, or were swept away as they tried to escape. The storm also spawned several tornadoes.
More than half of the deaths, 27, were recorded in New Jersey. In New York City, 13 people were killed, including 11 in Queens.
Biden’s visit follows a Friday trip to Louisiana, where Hurricane Ida first made landfall, killing at least 13 people in the state and plunging New Orleans into darkness. Power is being slowly restored.
Manville, situated along New Jersey’s Raritan River, is almost always hard-hit by major storms. It was the scene of catastrophic flooding in 1998 as the remnants of Tropical Storm Floyd swept over New Jersey. It also sustained serious flooding during the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Biden has approved major disaster declarations, making federal aid available for people in six New Jersey counties and five New York counties affected by the devastating floods. He is open to applying the declaration to other storm-ravaged New Jersey counties, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said.
Both Murphy and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio spent part of Labor Day touring damaged communities. Deanne Criswell, the former New York City emergency management director, now in charge at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, joined the mayor.
Biden also used his appearance in Louisiana to pitch his plan, pending in Congress, to spend $1 trillion on modernizing roads, bridges, sewers and drainage systems, and other infrastructure to make them better able to withstand the blows from major storms.
Past presidents have been defined in part by how they handle such crises, and Biden has seen several weather-induced emergencies in his short presidency, starting with a February ice storm that caused the power grid in Texas to fail. He has also been monitoring wildfires in the West.
The White House has sought to portray Biden as in command of the federal response to these natural disasters, making it known that he is getting regular updates from his team and that he is keeping in touch with governors and other elected officials in the affected areas.
As president, Donald Trump casually lobbed paper towels to people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria’s devastation in 2017, generating scorn from critics but little damage to his political standing. Barack Obama hugged New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, a brief respite from partisan tensions that had threatened the economy. George W. Bush fell out of public favor due to a poor response after Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans in 2005.
Ida was the fifth-most powerful storm to hit the U.S. when it made landfall in Louisiana on Aug. 29. The storm’s remnants dropped devastating rainfall across parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, causing significant disruption in major cities.
Superville reported from Washington.