Bridgeport — Standing with President Obama’s secretary of homeland security Thursday after touring storm damage, U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman offered unqualified praise for the administration of the man whose election he vigorously opposed in 2008.
Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent who energetically campaigned for Republican John McCain four years ago, did not come close to the surprising compliments given Obama by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. In fact, the name “Obama” never passed the lips of the soon-to-retire senior senator.
But Lieberman referred to “the president’s quick response” and the “tremendous transformation” of the Federal Emergency Management Agency since its chaotic response to Hurricane Katrina during the administration of President George W. Bush.
“We all remember six years ago, Hurricane Katrina. Some local official in Louisiana said, ‘FEMA’s just another four-letter word.’ Today, in Connecticut, FEMA is a four-letter word. It’s ‘help,’ ” said Lieberman, who is not publicly backing either Obama or Mitt Romney.
Just five days before election day, Lieberman likely was making his last public appearance with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the entire Democratic congressional delegation, including the man trying to succeed him, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District.
Malloy led both U.S. senators and four of the five U.S House members on a helicopter tour of the storm-ravaged coast with Janet Napolitano, who oversees FEMA as the secretary of homeland security.
“We are seeing unprecedented cooperation from all of the federal government,” said Malloy, a Democrat who has campaigned for the president and defended his policies on network television. “The president’s leadership is greatly appreciated in this matter.”
Obama called Malloy directly Thursday morning, asking questions about the performance of disaster officials and the state’s needs, Malloy said. The president also participated in a conference call with Connecticut municipal officials.
Malloy stood with Napolitano outside a FEMA van parked outside Housatonic Community College in downtown Bridgeport. He was joined by Lieberman, Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Reps. John B. Larson, Joseph Courtney, Rosa DeLauro, Jim Himes and Murphy.
All but Larson had been aboard one of the two Blackhawks that took the group over the coastline from New Haven south to Fairfield, whose beach neighborhood is still flooded and off-limits to residents.
“We understand the urgency of the situation,” said Napolitano, who toured the same stretch of shoreline a year ago after Tropical Storm Irene. “People are eager to get back to their life, to get the kids back in school.”
Residents wishing to make claims can call FEMA from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. at 1-800-621-FEMA.
Malloy said the Obama administration has quickly approved aid requests, beginning with a preliminary approval of disaster status prior to Hurricane Sandy making landfall in New Jersey.
His administration also has moved more quickly than last year, announcing later Thursday that he was waiving the permit process and allowing homeowners to immediately rebuild many seawalls and bulkheads that protect homes.
At the post-tour press conference, politics was downplayed, other than the obvious value of praising the president so close to the election.
Murphy, who is locked in a close race with Linda McMahon, did not speak at the press conference. The only congressional speakers were the two senators and Himes, whose district includes Bridgeport.
Lieberman, who wore a blue fleece jacket with the UConn logo, had his own stake in the success of the relatively new Department of Homeland Security, which includes FEMA and the Coast Guard. He was one of the architects as the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.
“I just want to give a shout out to you, to everybody who works for the Department of Homeland Security and the folks at FEMA for the tremendous transformation that has happened in our operations,” Lieberman said during the televised press conference.
He was interrupted by applause.
To Napolitano, he said, “You’ve been proactive. You’ve been non-bureaucratic.”
He also complimented Malloy, the Democrat who narrowly won election in 2010.
“Let me first say thank you as a citizen of Connecticut to Gov. Dan Malloy for the strong and effective leadership he’s given us,” he said.
The other officials applauded.
“The president’s quick response, secretary, you being here, gives our delegation real confidence that working together with you, we’re going to get the assistance for state and local government and the individual people in Connecticut that they need to recover from this storm,” Lieberman said.
Other members of the delegation, who are up for re-election Tuesday, or in the case of Blumenthal is expected to run in 2016, lingered to talk to reporters.
Lieberman left quickly, accompanied by Napolitano.