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    Tuesday, February 27, 2024

    Biden visits Mississippi town devastated by storm

    President Joe Biden speaks with those impacted by last week's deadly tornado and severe storm in Rolling Fork, Miss., Friday, March 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

    ROLLING FORK, Miss. - President Joe Biden visited this storm-ravaged community Friday, pledging to bring the full weight of the federal government's support to help residents rebuild after deadly tornadoes leveled much of their hometown.

    "I just want you to know as you fight through this, you're not alone," Biden said, addressing the residents of Rolling Fork while standing in front of a pile of rubble and downed trees. "The American people will be with you. They''ll help you through it. And so will I."

    The March 24 storm was one of the worst in the state's history, killing at least 21 people and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses across several counties. As the president toured the damage Friday - viewing overturned vehicles, downed power lines and gutted structures - he marveled at the power and capriciousness of the storm.

    "This is tough stuff," he told reporters before his speech. "And the thing that really always amazed me that all the tornadoes I've been to lately is that we have one house standing, one house from here to the wall, totally destroyed. But for the grace of God."

    His visit was an attempt to show local residents, most of whom are Black, that the federal government would not leave them behind, despite concerns from some locals about a lack of investment in emergency preparedness. The message was in line with Biden's broader push to address the inequities faced by Black Americans and to direct government support to people who have felt neglected by Washington.

    Biden's trip came against the backdrop of the unprecedented indictment of former President Donald Trump, the kind of event that can easily shift the nation's focus away from the plight of a small, tornado-stricken town surrounded by fields of corn, soybeans, rice and cotton.

    Biden opted against weighing in on the indictment Friday, even as his presidential visit to Rolling Fork created the kind of split screen his aides hope will reap political benefits as voters see him carrying out his duties while his predecessor continues to stir controversy.

    "I have no comment on Trump," Biden told reporters before departing Washington for Mississippi, declining multiple times to weigh in on his predecessor's legal predicament.

    In giving his remarks, Biden had a brief verbal stumble at one point, saying, "The town of Rolling Stone will be back," before correcting himself with the community's right name.

    "I've got my mind going here," he said.

    Ahead of Biden's visit, the White House announced that the federal government would be covering the full cost of state emergency measures here, such as removing debris and operating shelters. That came days after Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Mississippi, unlocking federal aid to assist in recovery efforts after twisters brought wind gusts of over 166 mph.

    The president was joined Friday by first lady Jill Biden, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge and other administration officials. Gov. Tate Reeves and Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, both Republicans, and Democratic Rep. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson were among the lawmakers on the scene as well.

    Reeves thanked Biden for his commitment, saying the presidential visit to this slice of small-town America meant a lot.

    "I appreciate the fact that the president of the United States is standing here in Sharkey County, Mississippi, to deliver remarks today and to hear from the people most affected," Reeves said.

    Earlier in the week, Reeves noted, "It's been my experience in times like this that there is no such thing as politics."

    Still, Biden's decision to visit Rolling Fork - after declining to visit some other locations recently struck by tragedy - carried its own political implications.

    According to the latest Census Bureau figures, the community of about 2,000 in Mississippi's Lower Delta has a population that is more than 80 percent Black, with about 21 percent living below the poverty line. The community voted overwhelmingly for Biden in 2020, even as the state of Mississippi backed Trump by more than 16 points.

    Biden has taken some criticism from Republicans for opting not to visit East Palestine, Ohio, where a February train derailment spewed toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, as GOP critics said he was neglecting a conservative, predominantly white town. Biden said he planned to visit the scene but has not yet made the trip. Trump visited East Palestine in February.

    Biden has not yet visited the scene of a mass shooting in Nashville, where a shooter killed six people, including three schoolchildren, on Monday. The massacre came just as Biden was planning to kick off his "Investing in America" tour of events around the country promoting his economic agenda. Biden has said he is contemplating a visit to Nashville, though the White House said no plans have been finalized.

    As Biden was touring the wreckage in Rolling Fork, much of the nation was bracing for a new bout of inclement weather. Outlook maps issued by the National Weather Service warned of an outbreak of severe weather, including thunderstorms and tornadoes, that could impact communities from Iowa to Arkansas.

    Overall, more than 85 million Americans faced an elevated threat of dangerous storms. "We are always watching the weather," Criswell told reporters. "And I'm very concerned about the amount of storms that are coming in and the storms that we might see today."

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