NEW YORK (Reuters) - President Barack Obama surveyed damage inflicted by Superstorm Sandy in a helicopter ride on Thursday over parts of New York City even as many local residents remained without power and faced fuel shortages 17 days after the disaster struck.
Air Force One brought Obama to New York's John F. Kennedy airport, where the president, wearing a windbreaker and sturdy shoes, was greeted by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, wearing a red tie and overcoat.
Along with other officials, they boarded a helicopter and flew over storm-ravaged neighbourhoods including the Rockaways, Breezy Point and Coney Island before landing in the hard-hit borough of Staten Island.
Joining Obama were: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan; and both New York U.S. senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
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.
Before Obama arrived, at Staten Island's Cedar Grove Avenue, 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 neighbours 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."
Obama on Thursday 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 walk through a neighbourhood and visit a FEMA disaster recovery centre.
The federal government's immediate handling of Sandy drew none of the criticism directed at former President George W. Bush following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Obama even earned rave reviews from some political opponents.
Obama won re-election on November 6. Before the election, Obama met with residents of coastal New Jersey whose businesses and lives also were upended by the storm.
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.
Obama made the visit even as this administration confronts other pressing domestic and international matters including the "fiscal cliff" of looming automatic tax hikes and spending cuts that could stunt economic growth and the fallout from the resignation of his CIA director.
A simmering civil war in Syria and escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians are competing for the president's attention as well.
Editing by Daniel Trotta and Will Dunham