WASHINGTON — For the fifth time since taking office less than a year ago, President Joe Biden is taking on the grim task Wednesday of visiting an area ravaged by natural disaster to offer comfort and condolences.
Biden was headed to Kentucky to survey damage and offer federal support for the victims of devastating 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 and demolishing homes, downing power lines and cutting off residents from key utilities as temperatures dropped below freezing in Kentucky earlier this week.
Biden will visit Fort Campbell for a storm briefing and Mayfield and Dawson Springs to survey storm damage. While Biden is expected to speak, it’s not the focus of the trip. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president will meet with storm victims and local officials to provide federal support.
Biden “wants to hear directly from people, and he wants to offer his support directly to them,” Psaki said.
Jeff and Tara Wilson, a married couple from Mayfield, were at the Graves County Fairgrounds on Tuesday, where a distribution center has been set up to pass out food, water and clothing to storm victims. They were setting up a mobile site for storm victims to receive counseling and said their home was unscathed.
Asked about the president’s visit and the reception he’ll receive in this 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 visiting, 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,” Wilson said. “So far that’s what’s happening. You’re seeing everyone pull together.”
Biden’s trip to Kentucky comes at the close of a year marked by a notable uptick 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 last winter’s historic storm there. He ultimately traveled to Idaho, Colorado and California to survey wildfire damage during the summer, as well as Louisiana, New Jersey and New York earlier this fall after Hurricane Ida tore through the region.
The disasters have offered Biden urgent and visceral evidence of what he says is the dire 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.
But on Wednesday, Biden’s focus will be squarely on Kentucky. Five twisters hit the state, 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.
Biden said earlier this week during a White House briefing on the tragedy with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and other top emergency response officials that the federal government is committed to providing whatever the affected states need in the aftermath of the storm.
“We’re going to get this done,” Biden said. “We’re going to be there as long as it takes to help.”
Alexandra Jaffe and Zeke Miller, The Associated Press. AP writer Bruce Schreiner in Mayfield, Kentucky, contributed to this report.