FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (AP) — For the fifth time since taking office less than a year ago, President Joe Biden is taking on the grim task of visiting an area ravaged by natural disaster to offer comfort and condolences.
Biden landed in Kentucky on Wednesday morning to survey damage and pledge federal support for the victims of devastating winter tornadoes that killed dozens and left thousands more in the region without heat, water or electricity.
More than 30 tornadoes tore through Kentucky and at least four other states over the weekend, killing at least 88 people, demolishing homes and downing power lines.
Biden was visiting Fort Campbell for a storm briefing and the towns of Mayfield and Dawson Springs to see the aftermath firsthand. The president planned to meet with victims and local officials to hear directly from them.
“The president’s message today is that he and the federal government intend to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes by providing any support that is needed to aid recovery efforts and support the people of Kentucky and of other impacted states as they rebuild,” White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said aboard Air Force One.
Jeff and Tara Wilson, a married couple from Mayfield, were at the Graves County Fairgrounds on Tuesday, where food, water and clothing are being passed out. The Wilsons, who said said their home was unscathed, were setting up a mobile site for storm victims to receive counseling.
Asked about Biden’s visit and the reception he may find in a prominently Republican region, Tara Wilson replied: “Don’t know. I think that as long as everybody’s hearts are in the right place, we need to not focus on politics right now.” She said it was a “very positive thing” that Biden was coming, and she and her husband expressed hope the president might help unite the community.
“This place is like a bomb has been dropped on it. And everyone needs to come together,” Jeff Wilson said. “So far that’s what’s happening. You’re seeing everyone pull together.”
Across the country, it’s been a year marked by a notable increase in extreme weather occurrences driven primarily by climate change. Only a month after he was sworn into office, Biden went to Houston to survey the damage wrought by a historic storm. He was in Idaho, Colorado and California to survey wildfire damage during the summer. After Hurricane Ida struck, Biden went to Louisiana as well as New Jersey and New York in September.
The disasters have offered Biden evidence of what he says is the pressing need for America to do more to combat climate change and prepare for future disasters — a case he made to help push for passage of his spending proposals.
The $1 trillion infrastructure bill, signed into law last month, includes billions for climate resilience projects aimed to better defend people and property from future storms, wildfires and other natural disasters. His proposed $2 trillion social spending package, still pending in Congress, includes billions more to help shift the nation away from oil, gas and coal and toward widespread clean energy and electric vehicle use.
The White House has spent much of the week engaging with lawmakers on the latter. Biden talked with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a key Democratic holdout, in hopes of smoothing over some of his issues in time to pass a package before year’s end.
Biden’s focus Wednesday was on Kentucky, where five twisters hit, including one with an extraordinarily long path of about 200 miles (322 kilometers), authorities said.
Besides the deaths in Kentucky, the tornadoes also killed at least six people in Illinois, where the Amazon distribution center in Edwardsville was hit; four in Tennessee; two in Arkansas, where a nursing home was destroyed and the governor said workers shielded residents with their own bodies; and two in Missouri.
The president signed two federal disaster declarations for Kentucky over the weekend, providing federal aid for search and rescue and cleanup operations, as well as aid for temporary housing and to help individuals and businesses recover.