President Trump got a firsthand look on Tuesday at the devastation from Hurricane Harvey and the deadly floods and torrential rains that have displaced tens of thousands of people in Texas and the Gulf Coast region.
The president and first lady Melania Trump made stops in Corpus Christi and Austin for meetings with government officials and to survey the damage, as search-and-rescue operations were in full swing across the state and cable news outlets ran grim pictures of Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, under water.
The president spent much of the day at the head of meeting tables in a black windbreaker and white “USA” hat listening to updates from his advisers, Cabinet secretaries, government officials and lawmakers about the devastation and government response to the natural disaster.
“This was of epic proportions, nobody has ever seen anything like this,” Trump said from the Annaville Fire Station in Corpus Christi, where picnic tables had been arranged on the concrete floor for the meeting with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R).
At times, Trump expressed awe at what he was seeing and lamented the devastation that officials say will take months and years to overcome.
“The sad thing is that this is long term,” Trump said at the Texas Department of Public Safety's emergency operation center in Austin. “Nobody has ever seen anything like this and nobody has ever seen this much water. The wind was pretty horrific, but the water has never been seen like this to the extent. And it's maybe someday going to disappear. We keep waiting.”
After the Corpus Christi meeting, Trump used a ladder to climb onto a fire truck where he shouted into a microphone over the wind. The president unfurled a Texas flag and waved it into the air.
“Texas can handle anything,” Trump said.
There were questions ahead of Trump’s trip about whether he would convey empathy for a region in crisis — and a few critics thought he failed to deliver.
“There was something missing from what President Trump said, that’s the empathy for the people who suffer,” Ari Fleischer, former President George W. Bush’s press secretary, told Fox News.
Others criticized the president for remarking on the “turnout” and size of the crowd that gathered for his meeting in Corpus Christi — though the hundreds gathered clapped and cheered his appearance.
The administration has been determined to ensure that the government’s response to the unfolding tragedy would be strong and that the president would be hands-on.
Many key members of Trump’s Cabinet and White House team traveled with him, including Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, small business administrator Linda McMahonLinda Marie McMahonTomorrow's special election in Texas is the Democrats' best House hope in 2021 April's dumbest and most dangerous coronavirus declarations Trump convenes sports commissioners in hopes of filling stadiums MORE and chief of staff John Kelly.
In Corpus Christi, seated in the middle of a group that also included Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant More than 10,000 migrants await processing under bridge in Texas Senators slow Biden with holds at Pentagon, State MORE (R-Texas) and John CornynJohn CornynDemocrats make case to Senate parliamentarian for 8 million green cards Democrats to make pitch Friday for pathway to citizenship in spending bill Without major changes, more Americans could be victims of online crime MORE (R-Texas), as well as FEMA administrator Brock Long, Trump said he wanted his White House to be remembered for its response to the hurricane.
“We want to do it better than ever before,” Trump said. “We want to be looked at in five years, in 10 years from now as, this is the way to do it.”
Trump stayed away from the worst-hit areas, as his visit would have drawn away resources.
He did not visit Houston, where desperate search-and-rescue operations are underway.
“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,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
Fifteen people have died from incidents related to the storm so far, including a Houston police officer who drowned while trying to get to work. Authorities expect the death toll will rise significantly once floodwaters recede and search-and-rescue efforts turn to recovery.
“This is still very much a life-saving effort at this point,” a Department of Homeland Security official said on a Tuesday conference call.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Houston mayor Sylvester Turner talked about shelters being overwhelmed by demand and the strain on sleep-deprived first responders who have been working around the clock to pull off thousands of water rescues.
An estimated 9,000 people are staying at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston and there is a long line of people waiting to get in. It is estimated that 30,000 people are seeking refuge in temporary shelters across the state.
Cable news outlets are running footage of people wading around in waist-deep water with dinghies and semitrucks negotiating streets that look like rivers. In Katy, dozens of people waited in line for food and water outside of an understaffed supermarket.
More than 100,000 people are without power in Houston and there are new concerns about overflowing reservoirs and breached levees, as some areas of the state brace for upwards of 50 inches of rain.
Abbott has deployed all 12,000 of the state’s National Guard troops, while the Pentagon said Tuesday it’s preparing to deploy 20,000 to 30,000 National Guard troops.
The White House says 8,600 federal employees are already on the ground in Texas.
“We've delivered more than 2.5 million meals, 2 million liters of water and with more on the way,” Vice President Pence said on the radio with 1360 KKTX in Corpus Christi.
“We have more than three dozen Coast Guard vehicles, helicopters and fixed-wings in the area; more than 100 shallow-water rescue boats; not counting literally the hundreds and hundreds of volunteers that have come to the area with their own watercraft to assist people. It’s been incredibly inspiring.”
Once search-and-rescue operations are complete, the drama will turn to funding for the disaster relief — another challenge for Trump.
About 500,000 are expected to seek disaster assistance. In a Monday interview with a Houston radio station, Pence said FEMA, which has a $3 billion disaster relief fund, would have adequate money to cover the costs.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders will be under pressure to deliver a disaster aid bill even as Congress faces a looming debt ceiling fight and will need to pass a budget to keep the government open.
Trump on Tuesday acknowledged that the natural disaster would be enormously expensive for the federal government.
“It's going to be a costly proposition,” Trump said.
“I think we'll come through with the right solution. But probably there's never been anything so expensive in our country's history, there's never been anything so historic in terms of damage and in terms of ferocity with what we witnessed with Harvey.”
Pence and Office of Management and Budget director Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyHeadhunters having hard time finding jobs for former Trump officials: report Trump holdovers are denying Social Security benefits to the hardest working Americans Mulvaney calls Trump's comments on Capitol riot 'manifestly false' MORE, both former congressmen, have in the past demanded offsets for disaster spending, while Cruz and Cornyn voted against a Superstorm Sandy relief bill they said was loaded with unrelated spending.
Further complicating matters, Trump has threatened a government shutdown if Congress fails to provide funding for a southern border wall.
At a Monday press conference, Trump said the issues are “separate” from funding for victims of Hurricane Harvey and promised “very rapid action from Congress.”
House Appropriations Committee chairman Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenBottom line Republican lobbying firms riding high despite uncertainty of 2020 race Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm MORE (R-N.J.) said in a statement his committee “stands at the ready to provide any necessary additional funding for relief and recovery.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said on Fox Business Network that the battle over funding looked “eerily familiar” to what he went through with Sandy.
“It’s gotta stop,” Christie said. “[We need a] straight up or down vote on the aide that is necessary to make sure that the people in Houston not only can get through this first period. … It should not be held political hostage. Sandy was and quite frankly from a lot of people who represent Texas and the United States Congress."