An upbeat President Trump flew in Tuesday to storm-ravaged Texas, mixing encouragement with non-sequiturs as the lethal Tropical Storm Harvey raged for a fifth day.
Air Force One touched down as the semi-submerged Lone Star State endured a round of new woes: Two dams and a levee breached, a drowned police officer’s body found and thousands more left homeless.
“Harvey … such an innocent name, Ben, right?” Trump cracked to Housing and Urban Development head Ben Carson during a visit to the emergency operations center in the state capitol of Austin. “But it’s not.”
Trump first stopped in Corpus Christi, where he visited a firehouse and offered words of reassurance to local residents.
He stood atop the front bumper of a fire truck, holding a Texas state flag and lapsing briefly into campaign-speak while addressing the citizens gathered outside.
“What a crowd. What a turnout,” Trump said to cheers, thanking Texas 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.
“We are going to get you back and operating immediately.”
The promise was belied by Federal Emergency Management Agency head Brock Long and Trump himself, who acknowledged Texas was facing a massively expensive and unprecedented rebuilding effort in the future.
Estimates for the damage are in the tens of billions of dollars.
“Nobody’s ever seen this much water,” Trump declared at the Austin meeting with local politicians and members of his Cabinet. “The water has never been seen like this, to this extent. Maybe sometime it’s going to disappear. We keep waiting.”
He was right: The 51.88 inches of rain recorded in Cedar Bayou, Tex., set a new continental U.S. record for a single storm.
Trump, in his twin appearances, failed to mention those killed in the storm — including the Houston police sergeant — or the thousands left homeless by the endless flooding.
He plans to return to the flooded Texas coast on Saturday to meet evacuees and see parts of the state that were “hit really hard,” White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters aboard Air Force One. There would be additional stops in neighboring Louisiana, depending on weather conditions.
“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,” Sanders said, without elaborating on which communities the President would survey.
The city of Houston moved Tuesday to open at least two more mega-shelters to cover the thousands of people forced from their homes by the former hurricane. There were already more than 9,000 people wedged inside the George R. Brown Convention Center, where officials planned to house half that number.
The Toyota Center, home to the NBA’s Houston Rockets, was expected to take in the dispossessed lining up outside their doors.
Televangelist Joel Osteen, the target of relentless social media abuse, finally agreed Tuesday to open up his 16,000-seat megachurch to the less fortunate.
More than 17,000 displaced people found refuge in shelters, including Cheryl Whitely. She fled her Houston area home with her kids, her mom and six pets, escaping to a Red Cross shelter.
“I’m still soaking wet and freezing cold and they are short on blankets,” Whitely said.
But there was a respite ahead in Texas after five ferocious days of rain. Harvey was expected to move inland into Louisiana, where New Orleans could fall in its wet path.
“Texas is going to get a chance to finally dry out as this system pulls out,” said National Hurricane Center spokesman and meteorologist Dennis Feltgen.
Cruz and Cornyn, both thanked by Trump, were part of a large Texas congressional contingent that voted against aid for New York and New Jersey in 2013 after Hurricane Sandy.
Trump wore a white “USA” baseball cap available for $ 40 on his personal website. His name appears on the back of the cap, with an American flag on its side.
Inside with Gov. Greg Abbott, Trump stopped just short of self-congratulation in his handling of Hurricane Harvey so far.
“We won’t say congratulations,” Trump told Abbott after flying into the rain-soaked state for a first-hand look at the massive mess left by the storm.
“We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to congratulate. We’ll congratulate each other when it’s all finished.”
The back-patting seemed premature on a day when the Houston police mourned the loss of Sgt. Steve Perez, 60, who died while on his way to work on Sunday.
He was last seen alive at 4 a.m., and his body was discovered Tuesday morning, said a teary Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo.
Although local authorities expected the death toll to climb, Perez’s passing was the only one announced Tuesday — raising the number of victims to at least 11.
The flooding issues in Houston and the surrounding suburbs were exacerbated by the failures of one levee and a pair of aging dams.
Brazoria County authorities tweeted a frantic message Tuesday when the rising water proved too much for a local levee to handle, threatening residents in low-lying areas about 50 miles outside Houston.
“The levee at Columbia Lakes has been breached!!” the tweet read. “GET OUT NOW!!”
The 70-year-old dams at the Addicks and Barker reservoirs began overflowing despite the Monday release of water by engineers in a controlled effort to relieve pressure at the two sites.
The breaches mean additional flooding of streets and homes, with the water now likely to linger for up to a month, said Jeff Lindner of the Harris County Flood Control District.
“This is something we’ve never seen before,” he added — an oft-repeated refrain in the region in recent days.
The possibility of an explosion at a heavily flooded chemical plant outside of Houston led to the evacuation of thousands, officials said Tuesday.
All residents within 1.5 miles of the Crosby, Tex. plant, owned by Arkema SA, were evacuated as a “precautionary measure,” the local fire marshal’s office said in a Twitter message.
Crosby is about 25 miles northeast of Houston. The area has seem about 40 inches of rain.
The continued bad news came as local officials feared the worst part of the deadly storm could lie ahead.
Local first responders speculated the death toll, currently at 11 after Perez’s fatality, could increase dramatically once the floodwaters finally recede in and around the city of Houston.
Overwhelmed rescuers, intent on saving those trapped by the floods, were unable to search for bodies.
Houston Fire Chief Samuel Pena estimated Tuesday that there were still around 1,000 residences with people trapped inside.
Cedar Bayou was hardly the one Texas locale inundated by the endless sheets of rain.
Another 14 spots, including four in Houston, already recorded more than 40 inches of rain, according to the National weather Service. And another 20 locations in the city reported more than 36 inches of storm precipitation.
Water rescues and evacuations continued Tuesday as forecasters warned the storm was likely to make landfall again Wednesday, with Harvey finally moving northeast into Louisiana.
Texas residents were both impressed and depressed by Trump’s bravado during the presidential visit.
Stay-at-home mom Gloria Stilwell said Trump was right: “Texas can definitely handle it. Texans have always banded together.”
Nurse Lisa Ike was more skeptical.
“Texas can handle anything? I just lost my house and three cars,” she said. “I need help.”