President Donald Trump cupped a boy’s face in his hands and then gave him a high-five. He snapped on latex gloves to hand out boxed lunches of hot dogs and potato chips. And he loaded relief supplies into vehicles, patted storm victims on the shoulder and declared the work “good exercise.”
An upbeat and optimistic president visited with victims of Harvey on Saturday, touring a Houston mega-shelter housing hundreds of displaced people and briefly walking streets lined with soggy, discarded possessions. Trump met the scene with positivity, congratulating officials on an emergency response still in progress and telling reporters that he’d seen “a lot of love” and “a lot of happiness” in the devastation the storm left behind.
“As tough as this was, it’s been a wonderful thing,” Trump said of the Harvey response after spending time with displaced children inside NRG Center, an emergency refuge housing about 1,800 evacuees.
The trip, to Houston and Lake Charles, Louisiana, was Trump’s second to survey the damage since Harvey hit and a chance for a president to strike a more sympathetic tone. He’d rushed to Texas on Tuesday, heading to Corpus Christi and Austin to talk to first responders. The trip, which included scant interaction with residents or extended expressions of concern, was criticized as being off-key for a presidential visit to discuss communities in crisis. “What a crowd, what a turnout,” he’d said as he stood outside a Corpus Christi firehouse.
Trump’s trip Saturday was something of a do-over. Joined by first lady Melania Trump, the president went directly to the NRG Center and was greeted warmly by volunteers and children. The Trumps brought coloring books and crayons and sat with families that had been displaced. Trump lifted one little girl into his arms and gave her a kiss. Before he left, he signed his name on the wall by the children’s artwork.
They served food in the lunch line and then moved on to First Church in the Houston suburb of Pearland, where they loaded boxes and bottles of water into vehicles.
“I like doing this,” Trump told one of the volunteer coordinators. “I like it.”
Trump’s enthusiasm and rosy views contrasted with some of the scenes from the water-logged coast.
As Trump visited, the Houston area was still burying its dead and trying to contain the mess. Nearby Beaumont, Texas, population 120,000, was struggling to restore its drinking water. Firefighters in Crosby, outside of Houston, were warily eyeing the Arkema chemical plant, twice the scene of explosions. Floodwaters had inundated at least seven highly contaminated toxic waste sites in the Houston area, raising concerns about creeping pollution.
Harvey is blamed for at least 43 deaths and believed to have damaged at least 156,000 dwellings in Harris County. The American Red Cross said more than 17,000 people have sought refuge in Texas shelters such as the one Trump visited.
The White House has asked Congress to approve a $7.9 billion Harvey relief down payment when lawmakers return to Washington on Tuesday.
In his brief stop at Lake Charles, Trump was due to meet with first responders and a group of volunteers known as the Cajun Navy.
The Trumps were joined by an entourage that included four Cabinet officials, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Before leaving for Louisiana he stopped by a street that had only recently again become passable.
“These are people that have done a fantastic job of getting things together,” he said as people stood near ripped-out drywall and trash bags piled high at their curbs.
He spotted a man wearing a red “Trump is my president” T-shirt and pulled him in front of news cameras. “Look at this guy,” he said. “You just became famous.”