* President gets close look at Staten Island, where 22 died
* He offers praise for first responders, relief workers
* HUD secretary appointed "point person" for storm relief
By Mark Felsenthal and Chris Francescani
NEW YORK, Nov 15 President Barack Obama consoled
grieving victims of Superstorm Sandy on the ground and surveyed
disaster zones from the air on Thursday, visiting parts of New
York City still struggling to recover 17 days after the storm
devastated the U.S. Northeast.
Wearing a wind breaker and sturdy shoes, the president
walked through destroyed sections of the borough of Staten
Island, hugging and chatting with people whose lives were
shattered when Sandy slammed ashore on Oct. 29, bringing a
record storm surge and killing more than 120 people.
Among those he consoled were Glenda and Damien Moore, the
Staten Island parents of 4-year-old Connor and 2-year-old
Brandon, two boys who died after being torn from their mother's
arms by raging floodwaters.
At the request of the Moores, Obama also praised New York
police Lieutenant Kevin Gallagher, who stayed with the Moore
family to help them through that tragic night.
"That's not in the job description of Lieutenant Gallagher.
He did that because that's what so many of our first responders
do. They go above and beyond the call of duty to respond to
people in need," Obama told reporters.
"That spirit and sense of togetherness and looking out for
one another is what is going to carry us through this tragedy.
It's not going to be easy," he said before returning to
Washington aboard Air Force One.
It was Obama's first trip to New York since the storm and
his Nov. 6 re-election. The trip came as he confronted other
pressing issues such as the "fiscal cliff" of looming automatic
tax hikes and spending cuts that could stunt economic growth,
unrest in the Middle East, and the fallout from the resignation
of his CIA director.
The gigantic storm caused an estimated $50 billion in damage
as it inundated lower Manhattan with seawater, rearranged the
New Jersey shore and Long Island, and tore up neighborhoods in
far-flung areas of New York City's outer boroughs.
At least 22 people died in Staten Island, a
Republican-leaning enclave that nonetheless voted for Obama 50
percent to 49 percent over challenger Mitt Romney.
Obama announced he was appointing Housing and Urban
Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, a New Yorker, as the
federal government's "point person" to oversee storm recovery.
He left unanswered exactly how to pay for the damage.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo estimated the storm caused
$50 billion in damage and economic losses, more than $30 billion
of that in New York state alone.
FEMA is due to reimburse some victims and local governments
for damage but has only about $8.1 billion available, meaning
Congress may have to appropriate more money at a time when much
of the talk is of fiscal restraint in Washington.
The storm also caused a surge in new claims for U.S. jobless
benefits last week and weighed on factory activity in November,
providing early signs of how heavily Sandy could hit the U.S.
economy in the fourth quarter.
SURVEY FROM THE SKY
After arriving at New York's John F. Kennedy airport, the
president and other officials boarded a helicopter and flew over
storm-ravaged neighborhoods including the Rockaways, Breezy
Point and Coney Island before landing in Staten Island.
With power generators roaring in the background in a part of
Staten Island still lacking power, Obama entered a white,
disaster recovery tent run by the Federal Emergency Management
Agency (FEMA), greeting people in line.
At a Small Business Administration tent where business
owners apply for low-interest loans, Obama chatted with one
woman and hugged another, staying with her for several minutes
and posing for photographs.
"Thank you guys for the great work," he told workers, noting
that volunteers had come from around the country. "Dallas. San
Juan. We got the whole country represented here." To a group of
FEMA volunteers, he said, "Proud of you guys."
Joining him were Donovan, Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg,
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and
both New York U.S. senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten
Disaster victims are increasingly frustrated at the lack of
electricity, shortages of gasoline and bureaucratic obstacles to
"It's nice that the president has come, but he is not seeing
half the devastation that hit this community two weeks ago,"
said Lianne Aponte, 25, a few blocks from where Obama spoke.
"It's all too little too late, you know. We needed our president
here when this first happened, when we were freezing at night
and the neighborhood was flooded."
She and her husband, Alex Bogomolmik, 31, said they had to
swim to their car as a 10-foot (3-metre) wave barreled toward
their home. "Thirty more seconds and we wouldn't have made it to
the car. We would have drowned," Bogomolmik said.
Before Obama arrived, a small army of federal, state and
local law enforcement walked mud-caked streets as vehicles
hauled away debris. Construction crews fixed cracked streets and
weary neighbors worked with volunteers to fill dumpsters full of
water-logged furniture and broken shards of sheet rock.
On Roma Avenue, Peter Testagrossa, 72, a retired concrete
contractor, sighed as he trudged through the blown-out remnants
of his two-family home, which he shares with his daughter Angela
and her four kids. Everything below waist level was destroyed.
"Look at the beautiful bathroom I built for my wife, with my
own hands," he said, gesturing towards a storm-damaged mess. "I
got in a terrible fight with my daughter this morning. She wants
to rebuild. But I don't want to. I love this house. I built
everything in this house."