Houston News & Search
Photo: Michael Ciaglo, Staff
President Donald Trump tried on the role of comforter-in-chief during a three-hour visit to Houston on Saturday, visiting displaced families, touring waterlogged neighborhoods and, at one point, helping Red Cross volunteers hand out boxed lunches at the NRG Center.
The president, dressed in khakis and a black windbreaker, hugged a baby and played with children displaced from their homes at NRG, which has become one of the area’s biggest disaster shelters in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s record rainfalls and catastrophic flooding.
“They were just happy,” Trump said of the kids. “You see a lot of happiness. It’s really been nice. It’s been a wonderful thing. As tough as this was it’s been a wonderful thing – I think even for the country to watch, the world to watch.”
When Air Force One landed at Ellington Airport shortly after 11 a.m., Trump shook Mayor Sylvester Turner’s hand and spent nearly two minutes in conversation with the first-term Democrat. Trump also repeatedly praised Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, and his office’s response to the crisis.
“The relationship with the governor and the mayor and everybody, it’s been fantastic,” Trump told reporters just before he joined the Red Cross volunteers in distributing hot meals to hundreds of men and women.
Trump noted that Air Force One had flown over Houston on its way into Ellington and said he could see from the plane “there’s a lot of water.” He confirmed that he sent a request on Friday night to Congress asking for $7.9 billion of federal aid for Texas.
His visit marked the second time Trump has been in Texas since the hurricane came ashore and devastated the coastal town of Rockport just north of Corpus Christi and 190 miles south of Houston on Aug. 25.
On Tuesday he met with emergency response teams in Corpus Christi who have been responding to the devastation near Rockport. He later toured the state emergency operations center in Austin. But while Trump used that visit to boost public morale and meeting face-to-face with response teams, he did not meet with storm victims – a point of contention from his critics who have said he should have been consoling people whose lives had been turned upside down.
In Houston, it was a different story.
Around noon, Shundra Cannon wasn’t much paying attention to the fuss that was building off to the side of the Kid Zone at NRG Center. She had a wayward 3-year-old to chase and corral.
A big surprise
When at last she looked up she saw people pointing toward the door where a procession of some kind was making its way toward her. Some official-looking man came up and asked if she could gather the kids together for a visitor. Of course, she said. She has been volunteering to help with the hundreds of children evacuees who had sought refuge with their parents in the cavernous center.
Then, as she whirled around, she almost ran smack into the chest of a man a full foot taller than her. He was wearing a windbreaker over a white open-collared shirt and had that familiar swath of golden hair across his forehead. It was the president of the United States.
“Well, hi!” she blurted, not the least bit shy. “I’m Shundra.”
“How about those Astros?” the president said of Houston’s first-place baseball team, which was hours away from starting a doubleheader at Minute Maid Park against the New York Mets.
Cannon laughed. She said she was impressed by his decision to come, and by what she saw as genuine interest.
“He was very personable. He asked how we were doing and he thanked us. He said, ‘This has to be devastating,'” she said.
Not everyone was happy to see Trump.
One unidentified person in the crowd shouted: “What are you going to do to help us? We need help!”
A woman in the crowd murmured some criticism and was quickly scolded by a National Guardsman: “Respect the office if not the person.”
The visit was a closely guarded secret on Saturday among organizers and seemed to catch both evacuees and volunteers off guard even though a few said they sensed something brewing all morning because of increased security.
“I’m really shocked. I woke up and here is the president of the United States,” said Christina Walters, who had been at the shelter for three days with her two sons after being evacuated from the Greenspoint section of Houston.
She was pleased he came. “I’m not going to doubt him,” she said of his motives.
Protesters gathered outside NRG. Most of them were “dreamers,” immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. Demonstrators said they want Trump to keep the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an executive order authorized by President Barack Obama that protects them from deportation and allows those who qualify to be able to work.
Immigrant organizations and advocates, however, fear the president is going to announce as early as Tuesday that DACA will end soon.
“Now that our city is in the aftermath of this horrible storm, this isn’t the time to put 120,000 young Texans who part of the DACA program,” Mario Salinas, one of the demonstrators, said.
On Friday, Trump said he would announce his decision about DACA and that, “We love the dreamers.”
If that is the case, said Salinas, “I hope that he follows his heart. There are people in his own party telling him that protecting the dreamers is the right thing to do.”
Daniel Candelaria, one of the demonstrating dreamers, said he and the others deserved a chance. “It’s inhumane for Donald Trump to be deliberating about our lives, especially at this moment when we are trying to rebuild and helping our communities to move forward,” he said.
Some estimates indicate that there are approximately 800,000 DACA beneficiaries in the U.S. that would not be able to continue working to sustain their families. United We Dream estimate that the number of DACA beneficiaries in Houston is around 80,000, and 120,000 in Texas.
Cruz joins visit
Later in the afternoon, Trump visited the First Church of Pearland, where he shook hands with volunteers and helped them load food and supplies in the back of pickup trucks. Organizers told Trump that as the situation in Houston improves, they are now trying to get the supplies east into battered areas of Beaumont and Port Arthur.
At the church, volunteer Kathy Holderfield scrambled for her cellphone to take pictures of Trump. She said it’s important to the spirit of volunteers to know the president is taking notice of the good work that is being done by her church and others trying to help the region recover.
Trump told the volunteers that in many states it would take longer to recover from such a disastrous event.
“They say two years, three years, but I think that because this is Texas, you’ll probably do it in six months!” Trump said.
Trump and the First Lady were joined at the church by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Abbott, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Veteran’s Administration Secretary David Shulkin.
After speaking to the volunteers and praising Abbott as a “great governor,” Trump joined volunteers in loading packages of water bottles and boxes into the back of cars and trucks to be shipped to areas as far as Beaumont.
“It’s good exercise,” he quipped as he lifted the boxes, slapping the side of a truck
His motorcade then made one final, impromptu stop in a south Houston neighborhood off Scarsdale Boulevard, where piles of furniture and belongings had already been dragged to the curb. Trump, with first lady Melania Trump by his side wearing a “Texas” hat, shook hands and patted residents on the back and thanked them for their response to the storm.
“Good luck everybody,” Trump said as hundreds of people gathered on curbs where their belongings had been piled.
Before the president departed for a stop in Lake Charles, La., he thanked hundreds of military personnel at Ellington Airport who have been responding to Hurricane Harvey.
“I hear the Coast Guard saved … almost 11,000 people by going into winds the media would not go into,” Trump told reporters.
Time to ‘come together’
Fort Worth soldier Greg Hoffman, who is working at the NRG Center, got to meet Trump and said his visit is important.
“This is a chance for the country to come together,” Hoffman said. “Times like these bring out the good and bad in people, but thankfully it has been more good than bad.”
Before departing, the president met at the steps of Air Force One with several federal lawmakers from Texas, including two of his biggest Democratic critics in Congress – Rep. Al Green, who has called for Trump’s impeachment, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who has come close to calling for impeachment and has said Trump is incompetent. Both represent Houston districts.
Trump seemed to speak in a very friendly way with Green, and they shook hands several times. At one point Green put his hand on the president’s elbow as they spoke. It all seemed very friendly. Trump also met with several Republican congressmen from Texas – Michael McCaul, Pete Olson and Randy Weber.
Olivia Tallet, Jenny Deam and Kevin Diaz contributed to this report.
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