Pres­i­dent tours ar­eas hard-hit by the storm

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Cather­ine Lucey and Ken Thomas

NAPLES — Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump doled out hoa­gies and hand­shakes in the swel­ter­ing Florida heat on Thurs­day, as he took a first­hand tour of Irma’s dev­as­ta­tion and lib­er­ally dis­pensed con­grat­u­la­tory words about the fed­eral and state re­cov­ery ef­fort.

Trump, who was in and out of the state in about three hours, got an aerial view of the wa­ter-del­uged homes along Florida’s south­west­ern coast from his he­li­copter, then drove in his mo­tor­cade along streets lined

with felled trees, dark­ened traf­fic lights and shut­tered stores on his way to a mo­bile home com­mu­nity hit hard by the storm.

Walk­ing along a street in Naples Es­tates with his wife, Me­la­nia, the pres­i­dent en­coun­tered piles of bro­ken sid­ing and soggy fur­ni­ture sit­ting on a front porch, as well as res­i­dents and vol­un­teers who were happy to get a pres­i­den­tial visit.

“We are there for you 100 per­cent,” Trump said be­fore don­ning gloves and help­ing to hand out sand­wiches to lo­cal res­i­dents from a lunch line un­der a canopy. “I’ll be back here nu­mer­ous times. This is a state that I know very well.”

As he left the state, Trump told re­porters on Air Force One that he planned another hur­ri­cane-re­lated trip, to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands, which were both badly hit by Irma.

“I spoke to both gover­nors. We’ve got it very well cov­ered,” Trump said. “Vir­gin Is­lands was re­ally hit. They were hit about as hard as I’ve ever seen.”

The pres­i­dent brushed off a ques­tion about whether the re­cent hur­ri­canes had made him re­think his views on cli­mate change, which he has pre­vi­ously dis­missed as a “hoax.” He said: “If you go back into the 1930s and the 1940s, and you take a look, we’ve had storms over the years that have been big­ger than this.”

Trump ear­lier met with fed­eral and state lead­ers in Fort My­ers, where he was brim­ming with en­thu­si­asm for the state and fed­eral re­sponse ef­fort, call­ing it “a team like very few peo­ple have seen.”

The pres­i­dent couldn’t re­sist in­ject­ing a po­lit­i­cal fla­vor into his visit, telling re­porters in Fort My­ers he was hope­ful Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a two-term Repub­li­can, would run for the Se­nate, where Demo­crat Bill Nel­son is up for re-elec­tion next year.

“I don’t know what he’s go­ing to do. But I know at a cer­tain point, it ends for you, and we can’t let it end. So, I hope he runs for the Se­nate,” Trump said.

Trump’s visit of­fered him the chance to see how peo­ple are cop­ing with Irma’s af­ter­math and how the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency is re­spond­ing. Many Florida res­i­dents re­main swamped and with­out elec­tric­ity. Nearly 2.7 mil­lion homes and busi­nesses, about 1 in 4 Florida cus­tomers, were still with­out power Thurs­day.

But as Trump’s com­ments about Scott sug­gested, pol­i­tics wasn’t far from the sur­face in Florida, the largest and most piv­otal state in re­cent pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. Trump de­feated Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton in Florida last year by about 1 per­cent­age point.

Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence, who joined Trump on the trip, promised Florid­i­ans: “We’re with you to­day. We’re go­ing to be with you to­mor­row, and we’re go­ing to be with you un­til Florida re­builds big­ger and bet­ter than ever be­fore.”

Trump’s trip to Florida was his third in less than three weeks to the storm-rav­aged South.

Af­ter Har­vey struck Texas, Trump drew crit­i­cism for hav­ing min­i­mal in­ter­ac­tion with res­i­dents dur­ing his first trip in late Au­gust. He saw lit­tle dam­age and of­fered few ex­pres­sions of con­cern.

On his sec­ond visit, to Texas and Louisiana, he was more hands-on. He toured a Hous­ton shel­ter hous­ing hundreds of dis­placed peo­ple and walk­ing streets lined with soggy, dis­carded pos­ses­sions.

This time, Trump made sure to con­nect with a com­mu­nity in re­cov­ery. He hewed to­ward hearty hand­shakes and en­thu­si­as­tic prom­ises, rather than hugs and tears, but he was well re­ceived by peo­ple grap­pling with the storm.

EVAN VUCCI/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and first lady Me­la­nia Trump, cen­ter, talk and hand out food to peo­ple af­fected by Hur­ri­cane Irma on Thurs­day in Naples.

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