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Hurricane Harvey: Donald Trump surveys ‘epic’ damage as Texas faces long recovery

LiveMint logoLiveMint 30-08-2017 Toluse Olorunnipa

Washington: With Texas still being lashed by rain and rescues still underway, President Donald Trump vowed that the government’s response to Hurricane Harvey would serve as a model for disaster recovery.

“We want to be looked at five years, 10 years from now, as this is the way to do it,” Trump said Tuesday as he and first lady Melania Trump received a briefing on the storm response at a fire station in Corpus Christi, Texas.

At a meeting with state officials in Austin, Texas, later in the day Trump said recovery from the storm will be “a costly proposition” but added that he expected to be able to work with Congress to “come through with the right solution.”

Trump made no mention of Harvey’s victims in his public remarks while in Texas.

At least 15 people have died so far in the wake of Harvey, according to a count by the Austin American-Statesman newspaper. Among them was a Houston police officer who drowned in his patrol car. Thousands more people have been displaced from their homes. Early estimates on economic losses range from $42 billion to more than $100 billion.

The 51.88 inches of rain measured at Cedar Bayou, near Mont Belvieu, Texas, set a new tropical deluge record for the contiguous 48 states, the National Weather Service reported in a Facebook post. That’s just shy of the all-time US high mark of 52 inches recorded during tropical cyclone Hiki in Hawaii in 1950.

Houston curfew

A nighttime curfew, from 10 pm to 5 am, was imposed in Houston Tuesday night as the storm’s center drifted back toward the Gulf of Mexico. It’s forecast to regain strength before crashing ashore again Wednesday on the Texas-Louisiana border, near the nation’s largest refinery, Motiva Enterprises LLC’s Port Arthur facility. Gasoline futures prices hit a two-year high Tuesday as traders braced for more cutbacks at Gulf Coast refineries.

Trump met with local and state officials in Corpus Christi along the Gulf of Mexico coast for what was both an assessment visit and pep talk. He skirted the center of the devastation, Houston, to avoid hindering rescue and recovery work.

Texas governor Greg Abbott, a Trump political ally who lauded the federal government’s storm response as “very effective,” was with the president throughout the day for a trip that ended in the state’s capital city of Austin.

Temporary army

Elaine Duke, the acting director of Homeland Security, said the agency is pulling about 1,000 workers off their regular jobs to instead focus on the storm.

“Our biggest challenge right now is finishing the search and rescue and then, when the rain stops, getting people out of shelters and into transitional housing,” she told reporters aboard Air Force One Tuesday evening.

Trump emphasized the scale and cost of the recovery effort in a meeting with officials in the state’s underground emergency command center, unleashing a string of superlatives.

“Probably there’s never been anything so expensive in our country’s history. There’s never been anything so historic in terms of damage and in terms of ferocity, he said, later adding, “Nobody’s ever seen anything this long and nobody’s ever seen this much water.”

Harvey “sounds like such an innocent name,” Trump said, “but it’s not innocent, it’s not innocent.”

Outside the firehouse in Corpus Christi, Trump told a large crowd that the storm’s scale is “epic” but that “Texas can handle anything,” and he waved the state’s flag to cheers.

Thousands rescued

The mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, said that he had requested emergency supplies for an additional 10,000 people from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Houston Police Department has rescued more than 3,500 people from floodwaters, chief Art Acevedo said.

“At every passing hour, more boats are getting into the water,” Acevedo said at a briefing for reporters. “For all the Monday morning quarterbacking out there, there is not hindsight for an event that’s never occurred.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said patients of 30 evacuated hospitals have been transferred outside the danger zone. Other medical facilities are quickly running out of fuel to power emergency generators. Federal, state and local responders are working to replenish fuel supplies, he said. “Our mission right now continues to be lifesaving and rescue,” he said aboard Air Force One.

Trump on Monday promised swift emergency funding to help Texas recover from the hurricane, though Republican congressional leaders haven’t yet sent clear signals on how they will proceed.

Epic cost

Harvey’s cost could reach $42 billion when including the impact on the labour force, power grid, transportation and other elements that support the region’s energy sector, Chuck Watson, a disaster modeller with Enki Research, said Tuesday. David Havens, an insurance analyst at Imperial Capital, said the final tally might be as high as $100 billion.

During the briefing on Air Force One on the way back to Washington, press secretary Sarah Sanders said there’s been no decision on the mechanism to provide the funds, or the amount of them, and sidestepped questions on whether those funds would need offsetting cuts elsewhere.

At roughly the same time as the briefing, the Club for Growth, an organization that promotes small government and low taxes, said it would push for them.

“Yes, we’ll be seeking offsets,” spokeswoman Rachael Slobodien said. “Absolutely will be required.”

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 became the most expensive hurricane to hit the US, costing about $118 billion, while superstorm Sandy in 2012 left some $75 billion in damage.

Waiting for request

Republican leaders haven’t committed to a swift debate on emergency funds. A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, AshLee Strong, said Congress will wait for “a formal request for resources from the administration.”

Congress returns 5 September from its August recess, when it will face a pileup of urgent tasks, including raising the nation’s debt ceiling and passing a stopgap measure to fund the government after 30 September. The House is only scheduled to be in session for 12 legislative days in September, which compounds its challenge. Another potential obstacle is demands by House conservatives to cut spending elsewhere to pay for Harvey aid.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz is among Republicans who have previously insisted that aid for natural disasters be offset by spending cuts. He joined Trump at his Corpus Christi briefing.

Trump has sent more than two dozen tweets about the storm in recent days and he has appeared eager to get to Texas to view the damage himself. He plans to return to a different part of the state on Saturday.

Republicans are cognizant of President George W. Bush’s widely criticized handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and some have urged Trump to take a more proactive approach. Bloomberg

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