'Texas can handle anything:' Trump rallies hurricane victims as he surveys storm's damage
President Trump mounted the front bumper of a fire truck in Corpus Christi, Texas on Tuesday, waving a Texas flag and telling the gathered crowd, "We love you. You are special. We are here to take care of you."
Trump came to Texas to survey the damage from Hurricane Harvey and rally communities still trying to escape flood waters caused by more than three feet of rain on the Texas coast before weakening to a tropical storm on its way to Louisiana. Trump said he may return to Texas and Louisiana over the weekend.
The storm has created the most severe natural disaster of Trump's presidency, with more than 1.7 million people under evacuation orders and search and rescue operations still underway in and around Houston.
"It's historic, its epic, but I will tell you it happened in Texas and Texas can handle anything," Trump told hundreds of cheering supporters outside a firehouse where he had just received a briefing from federal agencies responding to the disaster.
On his way to meet with emergency officials, his motorcade passed trees, signs and fences knocked down by the hurricane's 130 m.p.h. winds.
He then flew to Austin, where he toured the state's emergency operations center and described the storm as a "monster known as Harvey."
"It sounds like such an innocent name," he said. "But it's not innocent."
But as he toured the state aboard Air Force One, Trump consciously flew past Houston, much of which remains under water. Instead, he watched television coverage from Houston aboard the plane. There, a police officer drowned while trying to respond to the disaster, and a levee to the south breached — prompting emergency calls to evacuate.
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Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that Trump intentionally avoided the areas most impacted by flooding.
"The president wants to be very cautious about making sure that any activity doesn't disrupt any of the recovery efforts that are still ongoing, which is the reason for the locations we are going here today," she said.
In Houston, 9,000 people were sharing just 5,000 cots at a makeshift emergency shelter at the Houston Convention Center.
"We are very aware of the issues at the convention center," Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Brock Long told Trump in Corpus Christi. "But let me be clear, this is not the Superdome."
The New Orleans Superdome was perhaps the most enduring symbol of the poor state and federal response to Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall 12 years ago Tuesday.
Indeed, Trump's visit to Texas on Tuesday seemed calculated to send a not-so-subtle message that his administration had learned from the mistakes of his predecessors. And he brought with him a windbreaker-wearing delegation that included first lady Melania Trump, Housing Secretary Ben Carson, Health Secretary Tom Price and Small Business Administrator Linda McMahon.
McMahon said the SBA has already approved its first disaster-related loan, and Trump promised more help would be on the way from Congress. That rebuilding, Trump said, is "going to be a costly proposition."
The budget Trump proposed earlier this year would cut some of the programs that have traditionally been used for disaster recovery — notably the Community Development Block Grants.
But his message in Texas on Tuesday contained no hints of the fiscal conservatism that has created resistance to previous disaster spending, like the $60 billion spending bill to clean up and rebuild after Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012.
"We want to be looked at in five years and ten years from now as 'This is the way to do it,'" he said at the Corpus Christi firehouse as dispatch calls came over an address system.
But he said it's too early to declare the relief efforts an unqualified success.
"We won’t say congratulations. We don’t want to do that," Trump told Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. "We’ll congratulate each other when it's all finished."
As Trump was in Texas, Vice President Pence took to the airwaves, continuing a blitz of radio and television interviews with local stations in the region.
"We know we're not out of the woods," he told KKTX-AM in Corpus Christi. "People within the sound of my voice should know that this is still a dangerous storm."
The trip came as Trump also juggled the North Korea crisis. On the plane to Texas, Trump spoke with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore about the threat posed by North Korea, also thanking him for the use of a Singaporean Chinook helicopter detachment training with the Texas Air National Guard that helped with search-and-rescue missions.