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Reporter's Notebook: Aboard Air Force One in Hurricane-ravaged Texas

  • Peter Heinlein

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump participate in a tour of the Texas Department of Public Safety Emergency Operations Center, Aug. 29, 2017, in Austin, Texas.

Hoping to avoid the kind of criticism that bedeviled George W. Bush for the slow response to Hurricane Katrina more than a decade ago, President Donald Trump flew to Texas on Tuesday with several members of his Cabinet and a gaggle of pool reporters to show concern for victims of Hurricane Harvey.

But what Trump saw was mostly sunny skies in the two cities he visited, along with charts and graphs from officials who briefed him on the storm relief and rescue effort. Reporters hoping for pictures and stories of Trump meeting with some of Harvey's 17,000 victims in rescue shelters, or a flyover view of the devastation, soon realized that nothing like that was on tap.

President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, joined by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, FEMA Administrator William “Brock” Long and representatives of the Red Cross, U.S. Coast Guard, local law enforcement and utility company officials, attend a bri
President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, joined by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, FEMA Administrator William “Brock” Long and representatives of the Red Cross, U.S. Coast Guard, local law enforcement and utility company officials, attend a bri

For those of us in the reporting pool, the day turned out to be seven hours of bumpy flight time on Air Force One, with brief stops on the ground in Corpus Christi and Austin, far from the flood-ravaged regions still struggling with Harvey's horrors.

Most of our ground time was spent in press vans zooming along closed freeways at 80 mph (130 kph) in the presidential motorcade, interspersed with a few minutes of watching Trump getting briefed on the storm's damage and the work being done to help victims.

Damaged billboard

The most damage we saw from our van windows was a roadside billboard sign in tatters, apparently from Harvey's furious gales.

Some of the most authentically upset residents we saw may have been motorists stranded on access roads, waiting for the presidential motorcade to pass.

A protester stands by the motorcade transporting U.S. President Donald Trump to a briefing on Tropical Storm Harvey relief efforts at the Texas Department of Public Safety Emergency Operations Center in Austin, Texas, Aug. 29, 2017.
A protester stands by the motorcade transporting U.S. President Donald Trump to a briefing on Tropical Storm Harvey relief efforts at the Texas Department of Public Safety Emergency Operations Center in Austin, Texas, Aug. 29, 2017.

Aboard Air Force One on the ride home, pool reporters were briefed by administration officials leading the federal agencies involved in the emergency management and rebuilding efforts. They assured us Washington was doing everything possible to alleviate the consequences of the storm.

One pool photographer, agonizing over the lack of flood-related photo opportunities, observed that his most viewed picture of the day online had been a shot of first lady Melania Trump leaving the White House wearing stiletto-heeled shoes. The photo created something of a social media stir, with critics saying it showed how out of touch the Trump administration is with suffering Texans. The first lady switched to a pair of running shoes upon her arrival in Texas.

The other pool picture that made headlines was one of Trump waving a Texas flag during a seemingly impromptu, campaign-style speech in Corpus Christi. There, he shouted "we love you" to a few hundred enthusiastic onlookers outside the fire station where he was briefed on relief efforts at the point where Harvey first came ashore last week.

FILE - President Donald Trump holds up a Texas flag after speaking with supporters outside Firehouse 5 in Corpus Christi, Texas, Aug. 29, 2017, where he received a briefing on Harvey relief efforts.
FILE - President Donald Trump holds up a Texas flag after speaking with supporters outside Firehouse 5 in Corpus Christi, Texas, Aug. 29, 2017, where he received a briefing on Harvey relief efforts.

Focus on rescuers

Trump had earlier said he did not want to visit the areas still in the storm's path so as not to distract attention from the heroic relief and rescue work being done.

But in a tweet Wednesday, the president puzzlingly wrote that his heart went out to the people of Texas "after witnessing first hand the horror & devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey."

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters traveling with the president Tuesday that he would revisit the region Saturday, possibly stopping in Houston, America's fourth-largest city and one of the hardest hit. He may also travel to neighboring Louisiana, which has also suffered the brunt of Harvey's wrath.

Evacuees make their way though floodwaters near the Addicks Reservoir as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise, Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston.
Evacuees make their way though floodwaters near the Addicks Reservoir as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise, Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston.

When a reporter aboard Air Force One asked about Trump's reaction to Harvey's human toll, Sanders said both he and the first lady had been very moved by images from the storm-hit region.

"I think he's made it very clear," she said, "that the priority is taking care of the people."

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