CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Eager to show he’s on the job and taking action, US President Donald Trump offered up in-person reassurances Tuesday to Texans who felt the wrath of Harvey, promising local residents: “We are going to get you back and operating immediately.”
Four days after Harvey slammed onshore as a monster Category Four hurricane, turning roads to rivers in America’s fourth-largest city, emergency crews are still racing to reach hundreds of stranded people in a massive round-the-clock rescue operation.
Starting his visit to Texas in wind-whipped but sunny Corpus Christi, Trump’s motorcade passed broken trees, knocked down signs and fences askew as it made its way to a firehouse for a briefing with local officials.
“This was of epic proportion,” the president declared as he pledged to provide model recovery assistance. “We want to do it better than ever before. We want to be looked at in five years, in 10 years from now as, ‘This is the way to do it.'”
Afterward, Trump stood between two fire trucks and spoke to a crowd of hundreds of people gathered outside.
— Doug Mills (@dougmillsnyt) August 29, 2017
“What a crowd. What a turnout,” Trump said, thanking Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn. “This is historic. It’s epic what happened, but you know what, it happened in Texas, and Texas can handle anything.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters traveling with Trump that the president’s visit was focused on coordination among different levels of government and laying the groundwork for what is expected to be a lengthy recovery effort.
“The president wants to be very cautious about making sure that any activity doesn’t disrupt the recovery efforts that are still ongoing,” she said aboard Air Force One shortly before it touched down in Corpus Christi.
Trump traveled with first lady Melania Trump and Cabinet secretaries who will play key roles in the recovery. Some people lining roads near the airport held American flags and waved as the motorcade passed by.
The president, who wore a black rain slicker with the presidential seal on his chest and a white cap that said “USA,” was briefed in Corpus Christi on relief efforts. Then he headed Austin to meet with state officials at the emergency operations center. Mrs. Trump, who traded in her usual stiletto heels for a pair of white sneakers, wore a black baseball cap that read “FLOTUS,” an acronym for “first lady of the United States.”
The cabinet secretaries were to meet with their Texas counterparts during Trump’s visit.
“That’s a big part of what today will be about, the coordination between local, state and federal officials and laying the groundwork for the recovery effort,” Sanders said.
Trump has embraced the role of guiding the nation’s response to Harvey, which made landfall along the Gulf Coast on Friday night as a Category 4 storm near Corpus Christi, and moved northeast along the Texas coast over Houston. The storm has dumped more than 30 inches of rain in parts of Texas and authorities have rescued thousands of people left stranded by the storm.
Trump’s vow of swift action on billions of dollars in disaster aid is at odds with his proposed budget, which would eliminate the program that helps Americans without flood insurance rebuild their homes and cuts grants to states that would allow them to take long-term steps to reduce the risk of flooding before disaster strikes.
Trump’s budget for 2018 zeroes out the Community Development Block Grants, a key program that helped the Gulf Coast rebuild after Hurricane Katrina and New York and New Jersey come back from Superstorm Sandy. Among other things, the grants help people without flood insurance coverage rebuild their homes. In the 2017 budget, the Republican-led Congress restored some of the block grant money.
While Trump’s pending budget request didn’t touch the core disaster aid account, it proposed cutting several grant programs to states to help them reduce flood risks before a disaster strikes, as well as improve outdated flood maps to help communities plan for floods and take steps to better manage development in flood zones.
All told, Trump proposed cutting such grant programs by about $900 million. Former Democratic President Barack Obama also cast a skeptical eye on them, proposing cuts roughly two-thirds as large as Trump in his final FEMA budget.
Vice President Mike Pence said Harvey’s relentless nature and size were “frustrating.” In a pair of interviews Tuesday with radio stations serving Corpus Christi and San Antonio, Pence warned that life-threatening flooding will continue and urged listeners to continue to follow instructions from local authorities. He said he and his wife, Karen, would visit the region later this week. And Trump plans to return to the region later in the week.
Trump saw a largely functioning Corpus Christi, a city of 325,000, where damage was minimal. Power has largely been restored, particularly in commercial areas.
Some restaurants have reopened and stores are restocked. Hotels are jammed with evacuees from hard-hit areas to its northeast, including Houston. Residents have been advised to boil drinking water because authorities cannot guarantee the integrity of the city’s lead and steel water system.
Harvey is known to have left at least three people dead so far, with six more deaths potentially tied to the storm, and officials warned the danger has far from passed.
Rising floodwaters on Tuesday breached a levee in Brazoria County south of Houston, with officials urging residents of the 50 homes in the immediate vicinity to leave immediately.
“The levee at Columbia Lakes has been breached!!” the county government tweeted on its official feed. “GET OUT NOW!!”
The US Army Corps of Engineers has already moved to open the Addicks and Barker dams — under pressure from what the agency has dubbed a “thousand-year flood event” — to prevent a catastrophe on the outskirts of Houston.
With neighboring Louisiana squarely in the storm’s path, Harvey, now a tropical storm, is pressing eastward and is expected to make landfall again late Tuesday or early Wednesday.
Residents of Louisiana’s low-lying city of New Orleans — which Tuesday marked the 12th anniversary of devastating Hurricane Katrina — are bracing for heavy rain and flash floods over the next two days.
“The single greatest threat continues to be the rainfall,” Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the Miami-based National Hurricane Center, told AFP, describing the situation as “catastrophic.”
“This is not over,” he said.
The Texas bayou and coastal prairie rapidly flooded after Harvey struck the Gulf Coast on Friday, but the region’s sprawling cities — where drainage is slower — were worst hit.
Highways were swamped and residential streets were rapidly rendered uninhabitable, with power lines cut and dams overflowing.
Already, some 50 inches (127 centimeters) of rain have fallen over Houston, sparking massive floods across the city of 2.3 million people, and its wider metropolitan area of six million.
Houston can expect two to four more inches of rain as the storm moves away, but flooded conditions will likely linger through the end of the week as the rainfall drains off, meteorologist Eric Holthaus told AFP.
In New Orleans, as of Tuesday morning, two inches of rain had already fallen over the city famous for its jazz music and Cajun cuisine — but particularly vulnerable because it lies below sea level.
“It is really sort of a wild card right now,” Holthaus said.
“There are some forecasts for up to 10 inches of rain over the next 36 hours or so for New Orleans. I would definitely not be surprised if it became more than that.”
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.
“This is very much still a life saving, life sustaining response effort,” a senior official with the Federal Emergency Management Agency told reporters on Tuesday.
“We still have a very active weather event under way. And that just makes the response effort all the more difficult.”
Some of the rescue efforts witnessed on the outskirts of Houston appeared to be disjointed.
In Williamstown County, a police boat sitting on a flooded highway tried to rescue people but had nowhere to take them because no vehicles could collect them from a dropoff location.
Roughly 50 people needed help, 12 of whom had non-life-threatening medical conditions, but rescuers had to leave them there despite multiple requests for emergency vehicles that never came.