MIAMI — President Barack Obama extended a symbolic olive branch Thursday to Miami's Cuban Americans by paying his respects to the shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre in Coconut Grove.
Earlier in the day, Obama visited the National Hurricane Center and met privately with the family of Steven Sotloff, the journalist slain last year by the Islamic State, to offer condolences.
The surprise afternoon stop at the shrine by the sea, better known by its Spanish name, La Ermita de la Caridad, comes at a time when many Cuban exiles remain miffed by the president's decision last December to restore diplomatic relations with the communist island, especially since Obama made no effort to reach out to Miami leaders before his announcement.
Obama is the first president to pay his respects to the shrine, according to the Archdiocese of Miami. It's named after the patroness saint of Cuba.
"Hola," the president said to 13 worshipers seated in the church pews when he walked in. The Rev. Juan Rumin Dominguez guided the president, along with Cristina Brito, who served as interpreter.
"It's beautiful," Obama said as he admired the shrine's mural, which depicts the Virgin Mary and key figures in Cuban history, including Christopher Columbus and poet José Martí. Obama did not make any remarks in the shrine while reporters were inside. Students at Immaculata-La Salle High School, which is next to the church, took to Twitter to say they were on lockdown during the brief visit.
Obama's drop-in was intended to "honor the sacrifices that Cuban Americans have made in their pursuit of liberty and opportunity, as well as their extraordinary contributions to our country," National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement.
Even before the president set foot in the shrine, Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott had welcomed Obama to the state by slamming the president's decision last month to remove Cuba from a list of terrorism sponsors, which will pave the way for easier business transactions with the island.
"President Obama's decision to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism is shameful," Scott said in a statement. "Cuba has done nothing to warrant being taken off this list. ... The president should take time to reconsider this dangerous decision while in South Florida today."
But Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, a Republican in a nonpartisan post who has opposed closer ties with Cuba, took a more conciliatory tone.
"The ermita is the place where balseros who survive go to give thanks, where those who leave Cuba go pray, where those who have fallen get remembered at Mass," Regalado said. "I think Obama did well to step on hallowed ground for Cubans. It's not enough, but it's a gesture we should appreciate. He didn't have to go — and I think it's very good it was unannounced and they didn't invite politicians to show up. Just him."
The shrine stop marked the end of Obama's two-day Miami trip, in which he raised political cash for the Democratic National Committee and got briefed on the upcoming hurricane season. He toured the National Hurricane Center's windowless hollows and asked questions about storm chasing and forecasting. When he inquired about pilots collecting storm measurements, he was told they fly into hurricanes — not over them.
"Seems dangerous," Obama said. "Ever scary?"
Rick Knabb, the center's director, assured him the trips were "generally" safe — though Knabb recounted one incident in which a pilot lost altitude and was forced to make an emergency landing.
Jamie Rhome, leader of the center's storm surge unit, showed off a new model forecasters began using last November. Scientists also have better computers to crunch data from the radar they drop into storms, so they can make more accurate models once a system forms.
"I feel like I'm in a movie," Obama said at one point, looking at all the computer monitors displaying storm models and radar information.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and forecasters worry people have become complacent because they haven't experienced a serious storm since 2005. There are also governors in hurricane-prone states, including Florida, who have never been through a major hurricane while in office.
Obama didn't address those concerns in a briefing that followed the tour, but he stressed that people must make their own preparations and not solely rely on local and state governments for help.
"The best preparedness is that being taken on an individual level," he said.
Miami Herald staff writer Jenny Staletovich contributed to this report.