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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

'Texas can handle anything': Trump visits Harvey disaster zone

Mr Trump’s handling of his first major natural disaster marks the biggest test of his time in office so far

Donald Trump moved centre stage of flood recovery efforts in Texas on Tuesday, thanking emergency workers for their efforts and reassuring affected residents that everything was being done to help restore shattered lives.

He and Melania Trump, the first lady, began their visit in Corpus Christie, close to where Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Friday.

Their motorcade passed shredded trees and broken fences as they travelled to a fire station for a briefing with local officials.

Mr Trump’s handling of his first major natural disaster marks the biggest test of his time in office so far and critics will be watching to see whether he can master the language of unity needed in a time of crisis or whether federal recovery efforts come unstuck – as they did for George W Bush in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.

The president sensed as much when he addressed a room of local officials, saying he did not want to congratulate anyone yet.

Instead he said he wanted the Texas response to be seen as a model for the future.

“This was of epic proportions,” he said, as if using the language of his Trump brand to stamp his authority on the disaster.

“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.’”

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Read more:

Storm Harvey has shown the worst in Mother Nature but the best in people

Hurricane Harvey by numbers: 8 dead and 30,000 need shelter

Hurricane Harvey: situation in Houston changing 'minute by minute'

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The president wore a black rain jacket with the presidential seal on his chest and a white cap that said "USA" for the trip.

His wife sparked a huge online backlash when she was photographed before flying to Texas wearing a flying jacket, aviator sunglasses and stiletto heels. By the time she arrived in Corpus Christi she had changed to a sensible pair of white training shoes and a baseball cap with the logo “Flotus” - acronym of the first lady of the US.

Critics have already raised concerns that the visit may divert resources from crucial lifesaving efforts elsewhere. But officials pointed out he had avoided Houston, where emergency services are still overwhelmed by calls for help, as a result.

One neighbourhood to the south of the city set a record this week, receiving 1.29 metres of rain – the heaviest deluge from a tropical storm since records began.

Already as many as 15 people are feared dead, with officials saying that number will rise as waters recede and their searches turn to recovery rather than rescue.

On Tuesday, Sylvester Turner, mayor of Houston, confirmed that Sergeant Steve Perez, a police force veteran, died after getting trapped in his car as he drove to work.

Rescuers are still trying to reach many more who remain stranded since the hurricane, now downgraded to a tropical storm, came ashore.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary, told reporters traveling with Mr 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.

Throughout the operation, the nightmare of Katrina has loomed large in news coverage and the minds of local and national officials. The name of the hurricane became a byword for federal mismanagement as almost 2,000 people died during its aftermath.

Brock Long, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, talked up the shelters that have been established for those who were forced to evacuate the storm, assuring the public the shelters were well-organised and well-stocked.

“Let me be clear, this is not the Superdome,” he said, referring to the New Orleans football stadium that descended into chaos when it was used as a makeshift shelter after Katrina.

After his briefing, Mr Trump stood between two fire engines and addressed a crowd of hundreds of people outside.

“What a crowd. What a turnout," he said, adopting the style that has become well known at his campaign rallies.

“This is historic. It's epic what happened, but you know what, it happened in Texas, and Texas can handle anything.”