MIAMI — When President Barack Obama spoke recently at the University of Miami, students were not the only ones eager to hear him. Among the 1,400-member audience gathered at the BankUnited Center Fieldhouse was a large group of Obama’s South Florida supporters, many of whom had stood for more than three hours waiting for the president at the school’s Coral Gables campus.
Although seating for the president’s Feb. 23 energy policy speech was reserved for a large contingency of U.M. students, the White House had secured additional seating and standing-room-only access for invited elected officials – Democrats and Republicans – as well as community leaders and Obama campaign workers.
“I’ve been standing the whole time but it was worth it,” said Ernestine Blair, who said she later got a “handshake and a hug” from the president.
The retired Miami-Dade corrections officer traveled from her home in Cutler Bay in the southern part of the county and arrived on campus at 11:15 a.m. After clearing security, she stood with hundreds of others waiting for the president, who, after touring UM’s College of Engineering, arrived at the fieldhouse at 2:30 p.m.
Patricia Garrett, a retired teacher from Richmond Heights, was thrilled to be in the mix.
“I have followed Obama since he began running for office in 2007,” said Garrett, a member of the Democratic Executive Board for Dade County and a precinct committee woman in Richmond Heights. “Listening to him, you can hear his intelligence. He has what it takes all boiled up in one person.”
Gaelle Mortel, a sophomore biology major from Coconut Creek, said she learned not only about the president’s energy policy but also the research that the College of Engineering is doing to help local companies become more energy-efficient. The college’s Industrial Assessment Center teaches students how to do assessments, which have saved businesses about 25 percent in energy costs.
“Even though I attend school here, I did not know about the work we are doing here at UM,” Mortel said. “I am glad that the president felt it could be significant in the future.”
In his speech, the president applauded the effort. “It’s a great example of how people are being trained right now to make our businesses more efficient all across the country,” he said.
Obama, who was in South Florida to attend fundraising events to help finance his re-election efforts, used his speech to highlight areas where he says progress has been made by his administration to address the nation’s energy challenges:
• A record number of oil and gas rigs in operation, more than the rest of the world combined.
• Production of more oil today than at any time in the past eight years.
• Administration ap-proval of dozens of new pipelines and the opening of millions of acres for oil and gas exploration.
But the president cautioned that an increasing worldwide demand for oil, especially in China, India and Brazil, will keep prices high.
“In five years, the number of cars on the road in China more than tripled; nearly 10 million cars were added in China in 2010 alone. Think about how much oil that requires.”
He said as Brazilians, Chinese and Indians buy more cars, the numbers would get bigger.
The president also spoke about the importance of creating and maintaining an energy-efficient nation that is less dependent on foreign oil.
“We need to keep developing the technology that allows us to use less oil in our cars and trucks, less energy for our buildings and our plants and our factories; that’s the strategy we’re pursuing,” he said.
It’s a strategy that has caught the attention of Palmetto Bay Mayor Shelley Stanczyk, who also stood for several hours for a chance to hear the president.
“I support the office of the president and a change in energy policy,” said Stanczyk, who added that she is working with Pinecrest, Cutler Bay and possibly other cities to create a “green corridor” in South Miami-Dade. Homes and businesses could be retrofitted to better use alternative energy options through the proposed program. “We want to support the fact that Obama is going in that direction,” she said.
“The light bill and gas prices are killing people,” said Dejean Dessous, a South Miami-Dade videographer and photographer and an Obama campaign volunteer. “It’s affecting everything — from food to rent.”
Dessous said he understood that making changes takes time, which is why, he said, he supports the president’s bid for reelection in November.
“I think he needs more time,” Dessous said. “He’s not God, he’s not perfect, but he is doing something.”
Photo: President Barack Obama