Hand holding was done. The head was patted. And there were hugs— a lot of hugs. Joe Biden was walking through Dawson Springs in Kentucky Wednesday when he saw homes that were reduced to bricks and drywall, vehicles upside-down, and trees covered with wall insulation.
Biden was about an half hour ahead of his schedule, but he stopped to talk with the residents whose rooms were now cluttered with rubble. “I’m sorry to keep you all waitin’, but I got a chance to hang out with the whole extended family,” Biden told reporters as he introduced cousins Dane Maddox, 7, and Abby Parker, 21, who lived through the violent storms.
A chain of over 30 tornadoes, severe storms, and other violent weather events that hit Kentucky and the eight adjacent states this weekend left at least 90 dead. They also flattened entire cities and destroyed factories. Scientists warn that extreme weather events like this will become more common as humans add more carbon to the atmosphere. The weather left “our landscape almost unrecognizable,” said Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, who brought Biden to his father’s hometown of Dawson Springs. “You might think that we are broken but we are not,” Beshear said.
Biden assured that he would bring all the resources and attention needed to help victims of disasters when he met with residents who had lost their homes or communities. Biden agreed to be granted a request by Beshear for federal funding to help cover debris removal and temporary shelters for the duration of the disaster declaration that Biden already had approved.
It’s not always a straightforward decision when to show up. When Presidents visit disaster areas, their staff often delay their visit so the logistics required to host the President doesn’t disrupt ongoing efforts to save lives and restore services that have been wiped out, says Craig Fugate, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under President Obama. Bush, who was criticised for failing to visit New Orleans several days after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina 2005 in 2005 was said that this was not an intentional decision.
Fugate believes that being present in person is equally important. Fugate recalls that he traveled with Vice President Biden in 2011 to Duryea (Pennsylvania) after the devastating floods of 2011. Biden also spent so long talking with people while walking through Duryea, Pennsylvania, which is just a short distance from Scranton where he was born, that it caused the trip to get behind schedule. “We call them the commander in chief, but at times like this, it’s the consoler in chief,” Fugate says. “It sends a signal that the federal government is here and we ain’t leaving, even when the cameras leave.”
Biden’s visit on Wednesday took him out of Washington at a critical juncture for his major legislative push to pass social spending measures to reduce the cost of elder care and child care and expand steps to address climate change, which is looking less and less likely to pass before the holiday break as he had hoped.
But Biden didn’t spend much time talking about the haggling underway on Capitol Hill. As he toured the 200-mile-wide gash left behind by the storms, Biden tried instead to assure residents the government wouldn’t forget them. “Keep the faith—we’re going to get this done,” Biden told a group of families gathered near the President’s entourage of reporters, security and local officials. “No one’s walking away. We’re in this for the long haul.”