After touring two northern New Jersey towns ravaged by Hurricane Irene, President Barack Obama assured residents Sunday that the federal government will help them rebuild.
"We are going to make sure we provide the resources needed," Obama said while touring Paterson, a city of roughly 150,000 that witnessed severe flooding during Irene because of its proximity to the Passaic River. "I want to make it very clear we are going to meet our federal obligations."
Obama visited Paterson and Wayne for an hour-and-a-half total with a delegation that included Gov. Chris Christie, U.S. Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), along with U.S. Reps. Steve Rothman (D-NJ), Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-NJ) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Passaic County Sheriff Richard Berdnik, before leaving the state around 3 p.m. at Newark Liberty International Airport.
Christie announced shortly after Obama's departure that individuals and businesses in New Jersey's 21 counties are eligible to receive federal assistance.
The president started his tour shortly after noon Sunday at Newark Liberty International Airport.
Flanked by more than 30 law enforcement officials, Obama walked down the steps of Air Force One and shook hands with Christie, Lautenberg and Menendez before jogging nearly 100 feet to a group of two dozen onlookers and reporters from national and international media outlets.
Onlookers carried no signs, but had cameras and cell phones.
The president, dressed in a button-down blue shirt and dark-colored khaki pants, waved to reporters, but did not take questions.
Five-year-old Nadair Williams received a hug from the president.
"He loved his hair cut," said his grandmother, Deborah Hughs. Hughs, 53, of Newark, said Obama complimented the child's mohawk before giving him a full hug. "Nadair laid his head on (Obama's) chest," she said.
The president then smiled at reporters and boarded Marine One to Essex County Airport in Fairfield, accompanied by the governor and the two U.S. senators.
They landed shortly before 1 p.m., waved to the crowd and left in a motorcade to Paterson and Wayne with Pascrell, Pallone and Berdnick.
As the motorcade left the Fairfield airport along Passaic Avenue, one person held up a sign reading "Help Us."
In Paterson, Obama streamed past thousands of cheering residents on Main Street as he made his way over the Passaic River towards the Temple Street Bridge, which remained closed after heavy flooding.
During his visit, the president praised the work of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross and state responders and officials. "We know it could have been worse but we should not underestimate the heartache," Obama said.
The crowd, which had begun gathering downtown early Sunday morning, erupted into cheers as the trail of black Suburbans sped down the street.
Tracy Salmon, a Belleville resident and a member of St. Luke's Baptist Church in Paterson, camped out for hours along with several of her fellow church members to see the president drive through the city in which she was raised.
"For me personally, it meant a great deal, to have a president who cares about his people, and to have an area or city that's worthy of him coming here," Salmon said. "What happened in Paterson was a horrible, horrible disaster. Unless you lived here and got to see first-hand the devastation, you have no idea," she said.
Nearby on Jefferson Street, debris and discarded materials lined the street and a layer of mud coated residents' driveways. Generators were running, and front doors remained open as people continued to carry their possessions out to the street.
"We still don't have power; we haven't had it since last Saturday," said Adriana Fernandez, of Jefferson Street. "Our local officials have been doing a good job, but there’s only so much they can do. It’d be nice to get a little more help," she said of Obama's visit.
Pascrell, whose district oversees a majority of the areas Obama toured, praised the release of federal dollars. "The president's visit today is showing his personal concern for the people who have been trying to restore their lives after the Hurricane Irene disaster," he said in a statement. "The president's action of delivering this federal public assistance will help entire communities restore themselves."
The president made his last stop at a Lowe's Store in Wayne, which borders Paterson. He shook hands with volunteers that were providing supplies and food through a "Road to Recovery" center.
Imani Ross, 13, and Bria Johnson and Tyshira Evans, both 14, waited excitedly as Obama and other officials worked their way up the table line to greet the president.
"It shows he really cares," Johnson said.
Obama then returned to Newark on Marine One around 2:45 p.m. The president walked roughly 200 feet with Christie, shook his hand and then quickly boarded Air Force One back to Washington.
Afterward, at a joint press conference held by Lautenberg, Pascrell and Paterson Mayor Jeffery Jones, officials said Obama's visit provided much-needed comfort to flood-weary residents.
"This is a spiritual uplift," Lautenberg said, adding that the most important thing people in flood-affected areas need to know is, "When can I go back?"
"The main thing people are looking for is a degree of normalcy, and the president's visit helped them grit their teeth and say, 'OK, at least we know we're on the list.'"
Staff Writer Daniel Hubbard contributed to this story.
Note: This article contains information from official pooled reports distributed by the White House.