MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — President Barack Obama pledged the federal government's help Thursday in recovery after massive flooding hit many parts of Minnesota this month, telling a town hall audience near the roaring Minnehaha Falls that they'll have a strong partner when they know how severe the damage is.
Obama said he was briefed by Gov. Mark Dayton on high waters that have swamped farm fields, washed out roads and flooded towns and homes in the past week.
"I told the governor that we will be there as we get some clarity about the damage and what needs to be done," Obama said.
The Dayton administration is currently preparing a federal disaster request that could eventually free up federal aid.
Some Minnesota communities still face flooding threats. The Mississippi River was due to crest several feet above flood stage later Thursday and more rains were in the forecast. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who was on Air Force One with Obama after spending time this week in Washington, said his city expects to spend about $1.7 million in emergency preparedness and response.
Obama's "day in the life" venture into Minnesota exposed him to a local staple: a Jucy Lucy burger.
Before the town hall event, Obama stopped for the cheese-stuffed burger at Matt's Bar with a woman from the Minneapolis area who wrote him a letter about struggling to make ends meet after paying the mortgage, student loans and day care bills.
The White House billed it as the first in a series of one-on-one meetings between Obama and an American who normally wouldn't have access to a president.
Rebekah Erler, 36, told reporters that she "got a chance to start a conversation" about problems families encounter daily.
"I just felt like it I had an incredible opportunity to share what's important to me and my friends and my family and what we go through every day," she said.
Obama's efforts to raise the federal minimum wage and reshape student loan programs have stalled in Congress, and he is aiming to refocus public attention on those issues.
Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short countered that the president's policies would "make it even harder to create jobs."
With the president in Minnesota to tout an increasing state minimum wage, some restaurant owners expressed concern that the coming bump will end up costing the dining public.
Obama's trip inspired a renewed call by Minnesota's hospitality industry for changes to a just-passed law that will push Minnesota's hourly minimum up in three stages starting this summer. It goes from $6.15 per hour to $8 in August, with yearly increases taking it to $9.50 by 2016. Obama was to highlight the law during a speech Friday at Lake Harriet.
Restaurant owners want to be able to count a portion of tips toward wait staff wages. An attempt to do that failed last legislative session.
Ed Fong, whose family has run a Bloomington restaurant for 56 years, said he's considering raising prices by a dollar an entree to offset new labor costs for a staff of 60.
"As a restaurant, we cannot take all these increases on at the same time and not ... pass it onto our customers," Fong said. "And hopefully our customers understand that."
Dan Morret, an Obama supporter and a huge soccer fan, had to skip watching a pivotal U.S. game in the World Cup on television to attend the town hall.
He threw on a red, white and blue soccer shirt under his blazer and watched the game on a smartphone. But the choice paid off in the end.
Morret got to ask Obama a question during the president's town hall — about changing the nation's gun laws — and came away with the president's autograph on his soccer shirt, too.
"It was a surreal moment. It was something I'll treasure the rest of my life," Morett said.