Obama to tour areas in New York still suffering from storm damage

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By Mark Felsenthal and Chris Francescani | November 16, 2012 3:00 AM EST

President Barack Obama was due to visit areas of New York still without power on Thursday, 17 days after Superstorm Sandy tore across the eastern seaboard, showing his ongoing concern for victims of the storm even as his administration turns to budget and international challenges.

The federal government's preparation and immediate reaction to the storm were swift and drew none of the criticism directed at former President George W. Bush following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Obama even earned rave reviews from some of his political opponents.

But disaster victims are increasingly frustrated at the lack of electricity, shortages of gasoline and bureaucratic obstacles to recovery, and Obama must now answer to people unhappy their lives have yet to return to normal.

The president's trip comes shortly after he won a convincing re-election victory on November 6. His campaign got a hefty boost from images of him comforting residents of coastal New Jersey whose businesses and lives had been upended by the powerful storm.

Obama was due to meet with families recovering from the storm, local officials, firefighters and medical emergency personnel, and staff from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which likely will need a cash infusion from the U.S. Congress to fully reimburse victims and local governments eligible for federal storm relief.

The president was due to make an aerial tour of storm damage, walk through a neighbourhood, and visit a FEMA disaster recovery centre. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan were expected to accompany him.

Both New York U.S. senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, were due to travel with the president.

Obama is shifting to face the pressing issues that confront him as he starts a second term, including the so-called fiscal cliff of looming automatic tax hikes and spending cuts that could stunt economic growth. A simmering civil war in Syria and escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians are competing for the president's attention as well.

With his visit to the New York City area, he sought to demonstrate he is standing by the tens of thousands of people who remain homeless or were displaced by the storm and the many more who are still without power.

In some neighbourhoods, tons of debris are still piled up in the streets. Gasoline is still hard to get in some places and public transportation is under severe strain. Red Cross relief efforts have come under fire.

Cuomo estimated that the storm, which killed at least 120 people, caused $50 billion in damage and economic loss, with $33 billion of that in his state.

FEMA is due to reimburse some victims and local governments for damage but only has about $8.1 billion available, meaning Congress may have to dig deeper into its pockets at a time when much of the talk is of fiscal restraint in Washington.

(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Eric Beech)

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