By Steve Holland and Devika Krishna Kumar
WASHINGTON/NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden travels to Louisiana on Friday to get a first-hand look at the destruction wrought by Hurricane Ida, the monster storm that devastated the southern portion of the state and left 1 million people without power.
Biden is to meet Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and local officials about the hurricane, which is providing the president with a tough test just after the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
Hurricane Ida struck the Gulf coast last weekend and carved a northern path through the eastern United States, culminating in torrential rains and widespread flooding in New York, New Jersey and surrounding areas on Wednesday.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on Friday said the state had confirmed an additional two deaths overnight, bringing its total to 25. He said at least six people were still missing, meaning the death toll would likely climb higher.
“We’re still not out of the woods,” he told NBC News’ “Today” program, adding that his biggest concern following the wreckage was grappling with remaining high waters and damage. “We’re going to clean up … but it may be a long road.”
The fifth most powerful hurricane to strike the United States came ashore in southern Louisiana on Sunday, knocking out power for more than a million customers and water for another 600,000 people, creating miserable conditions for the afflicted, who were also enduring suffocating heat and humidity.
At least nine deaths were reported in Louisiana, with at least another 46 killed in the Northeast.
“My message to everyone affected is: ‘We’re all in this together. The nation is here to help,'” Biden said on Thursday.
Biden will tour a neighborhood in LaPlace, a small community about 35 miles west of New Orleans that was devastated by flooding, downed trees and other storm damage, and deliver remarks about his administration’s response.
He will take an aerial tour of hard hit communities, including Laffite, Grand Isle, Port Fourchon and Lafourche Parish, before meeting with local leaders in Galliano, Louisiana, the White House said.
Officials who have flown over the storm damage reported astounding scenes of small towns turned into piles of matchsticks and massive vessels hurled about by the wind.
Edwards said he would present Biden with a long list of needs including fuel shipments as most of the area’s refining capacity was knocked offline and mile-long lines have formed at gas stations and emergency supply distribution centers.
At Biden’s direction, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Thursday authorized an exchange of 1.5 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) to Exxon Mobil to relieve fuel disruptions in the wake of the hurricane.
Several refineries remained cut off from crude and products supplies from the south via ship and barge after portions of the Mississippi River were closed by several sunken vessels.
“This is the first such exchange from the SPR in four years and demonstrates that the president will use every authority available to him to support effective response and recovery activities in the region,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said late on Thursday.
Biden has also urged private insurance companies to pay homeowners who left in advance of the storm but not necessarily under a mandatory evacuation order.
“Don’t hide behind the fine print and technicality. Do your job. Keep your commitments to your communities that you insure. Do the right thing and pay your policy holders what you owe them to cover the cost of temporary housing in the midst of a natural disaster. Help those in need,” he said.
While Louisiana tried to recover from the storm, the New York area was still dealing with crippling floods from Ida.
People across large swaths of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut spent Thursday coping with water-logged basements, power outages, damaged roofs and calls for help from friends and relatives stranded by flooding.
At least 16 have died in the state of New York, officials said, including 13 in New York City where deaths of people trapped in flooded basements highlighted the risk of increasingly extreme weather events.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told MSNBC on Friday that there would be a need to implement travel bans and evacuations more frequently ahead of storms. He said he was putting together a new task force to tackle the issue.
“We’ve got to change the whole way of thinking” in how to prepare for storms, de Blasio said. “We’re going to need them to do things differently.”
Biden approved an emergency declaration in New Jersey and New York and ordered federal assistance to supplement state and local response efforts, the White House said late on Thursday.
(Reporting By Steve Holland and Devika Krishna Kumar; additional reporting by Andrea Shalal, Kanishka Singh and Susan Heavey, editing by Ross Colvin, Michael Perry and Steve Orlofsky)