President Donald Trump returned on Thursday to the storm-swept American South, handing out food and meeting with survivors on the Gulf coast of Florida, where Hurricane Irma raged last weekend.
In the Naples and Fort Myers area, Trump received updates on recovery efforts from state and local authorities and viewed damage caused by the monster storm.
As he flew from city to city, Trump passed over flooded neighborhoods aboard Marine One, the presidential helicopter. Inside a torn-apart mobile home community here, Trump distributed meals alongside his wife, first lady Melania Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Pence’s wife, Karen.
He vowed to return to the state, where millions of residents remain without power and areas remain inaccessible to recovery crews.
“We love the people of Florida, and they went through something that I guess the likes of which we can say nobody has ever seen before,” Trump said amid piles of debris and downed trees.
In Fort Myers, Trump thanked federal disaster relief officials, who have contended with a pair of massive storms in Florida and Texas that have left thousands of Americans displaced.
“I want to thank everybody,” Trump said. “I don’t want to see you next week in another disaster. We’ve seen you enough.”
It was Trump’s third such trip after a historic pair of late-summer storms made landfall seven months into his term. He made two stops in Texas after Hurricane Harvey spurred widespread flooding in and around Houston. White House officials say Trump also plans to visit the devastated US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico soon.
Throughout the storms, Trump has been eager to project a high level of federal competence and to avoid pitfalls made by some of his predecessors in the face of natural disasters. In striking a deal with Democrats last week, Trump secured billions of dollars in federal disaster relief funding, though the affected states will ultimately require exponentially more help down the road.
Trump has also taken pains to appear personally involved in planning and relief efforts, appearing in photos from the Oval Office with large maps and briefing materials spread across the wooden Resolute Desk.
Aides say that in engaging himself directly with the federal efforts, Trump hopes to avoid accusations lobbed against his two most recent predecessors of appearing disengaged or aloof during certain moments of crisis.
As Harvey bore down on Texas in late August, Trump and his aides quickly said he would visit the disaster zone within days of the storm’s landfall.
Traveling to the region so quickly came with challenges, however; because Trump did not want to divert resources from search and recovery efforts, he was unable to view the damage up close or meet Texans displaced by the storm.
Other elements of his first trip to Texas struck an awkward tone: the first lady’s stiletto heels, worn while boarding Marine One at the White House, drew widespread backlash on social media, and Trump’s comments to a gathering of supporters — “what a great turnout!” — were more valedictory than comforting.
Afterward, the White House was mainly pleased with the trip, though some aides grumbled that he’d missed an opportunity to show more compassion as hundreds of thousands of Americans faced uncertain futures. White House officials acknowledged that assuming the “comforter in chief” role was harder than it appears on television.
Visiting Texas a few days after Trump, Pence took a more active approach, clearing downed tree branches in a sweat-soaked shirt and leading a prayer circle at a damaged church.
When Trump returned to the state several days after that, he did inject himself into relief efforts, helping load boxes onto trucks and and viewing the flooding at closer range. But even then, there were some discordant moments, like when he urged relief workers to “have a good time” in Houston.
In Florida on Thursday, Trump couldn’t help but insert some political discourse into his remarks. On the tarmac of the Fort Myers airport, he encouraged the state’s governor, Republican Rick Scott, to challenge Florida’s Democratic senator when his term expires.
“I don’t know what he’s going to do. But I know that at a certain point it ends for you, and we can’t let it end,” Trump said. “So I hope he runs for Senate.”
Mainly, however, he sought to highlight the work of federal, state and local agencies, which have received praise for their coordination amid trying circumstances.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said on Thursday that more than 38,000 federal personnel are currently working to respond to Hurricane Irma, including staff from the military and civilian agencies.
FEMA also said it had moved 3.8 million meals and 3.4 million liters of water to states in the Southeast that were affected by the storm.
Nevertheless, millions of residents in Florida remained without power on Friday, a dangerous scenario amid high temperatures in the state. The risk was illustrated Thursday at a nursing home in Hollywood, where eight residents died after their air conditioning stopped working.