Trump praises Texans on trip to Harvey disaster zone
President Donald Trump toured the Harvey disaster zone in Texas on Tuesday as he sought to project an image of leadership in America’s first big natural disaster since he took office, as the battered US Gulf Coast girded for another hit from the huge storm.
Four days after Harvey slammed onshore as a Category Four hurricane, turning roads into rivers and neighborhoods into lakes in America’s fourth-largest city, emergency crews still struggled to reach hundreds of stranded people in a massive round-the-clock rescue operation.
Rain and more rain kept falling, with no sign of the nightmare easing. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner declared a nighttime curfew as the city tries to head off looting in the wake of epic flooding from Harvey.
The White House announced that Trump already plans to go back to Texas on Saturday — a surprisingly quick return to a disaster zone for a US president.
Trump, sporting a “USA” baseball cap and clutching a Texas flag with its trademark lone star, tried Tuesday to strike a unifying tone as he visited the coastal city of Corpus Christi, praising the work of state and federal officials in responding to the disaster.
“We want to be looked at in five years, in 10 years from now as, this is the way to do it,” he said.
Emerging from a briefing held inside a fire station, Trump climbed up a ladder for an impromptu address to the mix of supporters and banner-waving protesters gathered outside.
“We love you, you are special, we are here to take care of you,” the president called out. “It’s historic, its epic, but I tell you, it happened in Texas — and Texas can handle anything.”
“What a crowd, what a turnout,” Trump added, as if addressing a political rally.
The US leader and First Lady Melania avoided visiting Houston — swathes of which remain under water — to avoid disrupting recovery efforts.
But the president was nevertheless seeking to make a political statement, learning from the mistakes of former Republican leader George W. Bush, whose response to Hurricane Katrina — which walloped New Orleans exactly 12 years ago — was widely seen as botched.
Harvey, now a tropical storm, has so far driven more than 8,000 people into emergency shelters across the Lone Star State, and hundreds more still await rescue.
“We’re Trumponites. I trust he’s going to take care of us,” said Darla Fitzgerald, a 58-year-old nurse based in a Red Cross shelter in Winnie, a small town east of Houston, where the rain fell heavily Tuesday.
– One more victim –
A Houston police officer was confirmed as the latest victim of the storm after the body of Steve Perez, who went missing after reporting for duty in the early hours of Sunday, was recovered by divers two days later.
Harvey was previously known to have left at least three people dead, with six more fatalities potentially tied to the storm, and officials warned the danger has far from passed.
On Air Force One bringing Trump back to Washington, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president will return to Texas Saturday and perhaps go to Louisiana, too, depending on the weather there.
“We’ll go back into a different part of the state, to have a chance to see some of the areas we were not able to today,” she said.
She said Trump and the first lady were very moved by what they saw at the disaster zone.
“I think he’s made very clear the priority is taking care of the people,” she said.
Everywhere, the figures from the storm are staggering. The National Weather Service said over six million Texans have been impacted by 30 inches (76 inches) or more of rain since Friday.
Residents living around a chemical plant in the county that includes Houston were evacuated as a precaution, over fears that some of the chemicals at the facility — which produces organic peroxides — might react or cause an explosion.
The NASA space flight center in Houston said it was closing until Monday because of the storm.
With neighboring Louisiana squarely in the path of a storm now hovering off the Gulf Coast, Harvey is pressing northeastward and expected to make landfall again late Tuesday or early Wednesday.
Residents of low-lying New Orleans — which bore the brunt of Katrina’s wrath in 2005 — are bracing for up to 10 inches of rain over the next 36 hours, with a risk of flash floods.
“It is really sort of a wild card right now,” meteorologist Eric Holthaus told AFP of the outlook for New Orleans.
The farthest reaching rain bands from that storm have already dumped as much as six inches of water in parts of the city famous for its jazz music and Cajun cuisine.
– ‘Not over’ –
The National Weather Service tweeted that Harvey appears to have broken a US record for most rain from a single tropical cyclone, with nearly 52 inches (132 centimeters) recorded in the town of Cedar Bayou.
“The single greatest threat continues to be the rainfall,” said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the Miami-based National Hurricane Center.
“This is not over.”
The Texas bayou and coastal prairie rapidly flooded after Harvey struck the coast on Friday, but the region’s sprawling cities where drainage is slower were worst hit.
Highways were swamped and homes were rendered uninhabitable, with power lines cut and dams overflowing, sparking massive floods across Houston — a city of 2.3 million people — and its wider metropolitan area of six million.
Sixteen-year-old Andrea Aviles was holed up at a hotel with about 30 members of her extended family, having evacuated her home in Winnie, driving past cars abandoned in flooded ditches on the way.
“All our yard is full of water,” said Aviles. “I’ve never seen it like this.”
The National Hurricane Center said Harvey is expected to produce additional rainfall accumulations of six to 12 inches to the north and east of Houston from far east Texas into southwestern Louisiana.
Federal officials estimate that up to half a million people in Texas will ultimately require some form of assistance — but for now the focus remains immediate disaster relief, with many lives still at stake.
“Recovery is a slow process,” Brock Long, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said as he welcomed Trump in Corpus Christi along with Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
“We’ve got a long way to go.”
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