NAPLES, Fla. — President Trump took a day trip to Florida Thursday to survey the extent of Hurricane Irma's destruction, thank public safety services and meet first-hand with victims of the most powerful hurricane to hit the United States since Katrina in 2005.
As he flew over Bonita Springs on Marine One, the president's helicopter cruised low enough for him to see screen doors, siding and other debris strewn across carefully laid out subdivisions. Driving into the Naples Estates neighborhood, he witnessed downed trees, ripped out street signs, tarp-covered roofs and totaled mobile homes. Empty gas stations advertised they had no fuel.
"We love these people — we're going to be back, and we're going to help them," Trump said during a walking tour of Naples Estates, a retirement community made up of manufactured homes nestled among the region's many golf courses. (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI, AFP/Getty Images)
"I want to tell you we love you and we are there for you 100%," he said.
The trip to Florida marks the third hurricane-ravaged state that Trump has visited in just the past three weeks, as the double-barreled hits of hurricanes Harvey and Irma exacted a heavy toll on the Gulf Coast states of Texas, Louisiana and Florida. Trump is also planning to visit the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico later this month.
His first trip to Texas after Hurricane Harvey was marked by official meetings but little personal interaction — creating a detached image that he later corrected with a second trip to Texas and Louisiana four days later.
At a makeshift food stand in Naples, Trump wore a presidential windbreaker over his white dress shirt as he handed out hoagies.
Or rather, Trump mostly pointed to the hoagies after struggling to put on the food service gloves. “Don’t forget to take one!” he implored. “Here’s a nice one!” To his side, first lady Melania Trump handed out water and Vice President Pence took charge of the bananas.
Later, reporters asked Trump about whether the severity of these hurricanes changed his views on climate change. Trump, who has been skeptical about climate change, suggested they did not: “We’ve had bigger storms than this," he replied.
Irma has claimed more than 60 lives across three states and the Caribbean — including eight people who died in a sweltering Hollywood, Fla. nursing home after it was left without power.
But Trump said the death toll could have been far higher except for the efforts of federal, state and local governments to prepare for the storm and evacuate residents in the path of the storm.
"People thought thousands and thousands of people may have their lives ended. And the number is a very small number, which is a great tribute to you," Trump said, thanking first responders, utility workers and even reporters for their efforts to keep people safe, cool and informed.
"We don’t want to see you next week in another disaster," he joked in Fort Myers as he stood in front of an orange-and-white Coast Guard helicopter. "We've seen you enough."
But then Trump also injected some politics into his visit, congratulating Florida's Republican governor for his efforts: "I hope this man, Rick Scott, runs for the Senate."
Pence joined Trump in both Fort Myers and Naples, but traveled separately on Air Force Two following a long-standing practice that the president and vice president never fly together.
Gregory Korte reported from Washington and Frank Gluck contributed from Fort Myers.