President Barack Obama vowed Thursday to stick with New Yorkers still struggling 17 days after Superstorm Sandy "until the rebuilding is complete" after getting an up-close look at devastated neighborhoods rendered unlivable.
“I’m very proud of you, New York. You’re tough,” Obama said from a block in Staten Island that was demolished by the storm.
Obama brought the spotlight to people still living without heat or electricity, and hugged many of those trying to rebuild their lives. He also delivered a postelection message of unity, nine days after a closely divided America gave him a second term.
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"We're reminded that we are bound together and we have to look out for each other," Obama said. "The petty differences melt away."
Obama announced that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, former chief of New York's Housing Authority, will be his point person to oversee long-term rebuilding in the region.
The president encountered many still suffering in Sandy's aftermath, waiting in lines for food, supplies and other help.
He also met privately with parents who experienced the most unthinkable tragedy — the loss of their young boys, Brandon and Connor Moore, who were swept away in the storm. Damien and Glenda Moore's sons were among more than 100 people who lost their lives because of the powerful storm.
"Obviously I expressed to them as a father, as a parent, my heartbreak over what they went through," Obama said. He said the Moores were "still a little shell shocked" but wanted to thank the New York City police lieutenant who stayed with them and supported them until their boys' bodies were found.
"That spirit and that sense of togetherness carry us through," Obama said.
Before arriving on Staten Island, the president's helicopter flew over Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, including the waterfront community of Breezy Point, where roughly 100 homes burned to the ground in a massive wind-swept fire.
On Staten Island, Obama met with people waiting in line at an emergency response center at New Dorp High School, where the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Small Business Administration, IRS, Red Cross and city agencies set up 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.
He hugged one woman at the business tent, asking where she was staying and if her loved ones were safe. He also visited a tent where food and toiletries were being distributed and thanked the workers and volunteers who came in from around the country. Several hundred people gathered nearby to see the president and shouted, "We love you!"
One girl collecting supplies who said her house is unlivable said: "We need help. He should have been here a long time ago." That sentiment was shared by others, including Anthony Gatti, whose home near the ocean was wrecked by Sandy.
"I think he should've been here a few days ago to see how much devastation we've had here," said Gatti, who was hoping to get a FEMA trailer to live in with his parents while they find a new home.
Gatti said he has been standing in line all day, every day, waiting to speak with FEMA officials. His family's home will be demolished in the coming weeks. They lost everything they owned in the storm.
"If he could do something to make this process with the government a little faster and easier on us, that would be a great thing," he said of Obama.
Obama also walked along Cedar Grove Avenue, where most of the buildings were boarded up and homes were destroyed.
He was joined on the tour by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both New York Democrats, flew up with the president.
Cuomo said earlier this week that he would request $30 billion in federal aid to rebuild.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said he couldn't comment on the request because the administration was still waiting to see the details. He said the federal government will continue to do everything possible to cut red tape and help affected communities rebuild.
Obama traveled to New Jersey on Oct. 31 to meet with Gov. Chris Christie and view recovery efforts in battered coastal communities. He saw flattened houses, flooded neighborhoods, sand-strewn streets and a still-burning fire along the coastline.
The White House said the president didn't visit New York then so as not to interfere with recovery efforts.
Also Thursday, Bloomberg announced 5,000 seats in the bleachers along the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade route will go to families affected by Sandy, NBC New York reported. Local elected officials in the hardest hit neighborhoods will distribute the tickets and Macy's will provide transportation to and from the parade, the city said.