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article imageTrump visits evacuees at shelter in storm-battered Houston

By Elodie CUZIN and Michael MATHES (AFP)     Sep 2, 2017 in World

President Donald Trump handed out box lunches and hugged children at an emergency shelter in Houston Saturday as he sought to rally America behind victims of Hurricane Harvey while they dig out of the devastation left by the megastorm.

The president has called for a "National Day of Prayer" Sunday, one day after his visit to Texas and Louisiana to meet with victims and review the damage left by the catastrophic flooding unleashed by storm.

"We're signing a lot of documents now to get money. $7.9 billion," Trump said at the giant NRG Center exhibition space that has been turned into a shelter.

"We signed it and now it's going through a very quick, hopefully quick process."

Houston, the country's fourth largest city, was taking tentative steps back to normalcy after a week of flooding that claimed the lives of 42 people and damaged 40,000 to 50,000 homes.

Full recovery is expected to take years, and the costs are conservatively estimated at tens of billions of dollars, with analysts putting the range between 30 and 100 billion dollars.

Trump and his wife Melania shook hands and posed for selfies at the NRG Center shelter with evacuees eager to greet the VIPs.

Accompanied by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Trump went to a section of the hall where a homemade banner that read "KID ZONE!!" hung on the wall. He was quickly surrounded by small children who gave him hugs, handshakes and high-fives.

One young girl grabbed the president in an embrace -- and the grandfather of eight responded by picking her up and giving her a kiss.

"As tough as this was, it's been a wonderful thing. I think even for the country to watch it, for the world to watch. It's been beautiful," he told reporters.

Clearly enjoying himself, Trump then joined volunteers handing out box lunches. He chatted with evacuees who rushed over, while many more crowded behind security barricades with their phones aloft.

Kevin Jason Hipolito, 37, an unemployed Houston resident who was rescued from the roof of his car after his first floor apartment flooded, said he was pleased that Trump visited the city after omitting it on an earlier visit to the state.

"I'm a Democrat. It raises the morale. When he went to Corpus, I was like, 'man he just forgot about us.' This shows a lot of support. It perks up morale."

But Ima George, a 42-year-old whose young son was in the children's play area, was less impressed.

"The first time he came to Texas he didn't even bother to come to Houston," she said. "It doesn't make any difference if he came or not. The city is supporting itself and supporting other people outside of the city."

Downtown cafes were open and a couple was even seen jogging, though area hotels were packed with exhausted families -- including many who have received vouchers to help pay for rooms. Some checked in carrying their belongings in plastic bags.

- Return visit -

Kelsey Johnson tosses away a bag of flood-damaged belongings in front of her home in the Westbury ne...
Kelsey Johnson tosses away a bag of flood-damaged belongings in front of her home in the Westbury neighborhood of southwest Houston
MANDEL NGAN, AFP

The president's visit to Texas was his second since the megastorm hit. He also touched down Saturday in Lake Charles, Louisiana, which saw serious flooding.

The White House's request for nearly $8 billion in emergency storm aid -- made in a letter late Friday to House Speaker Paul Ryan -- was $2 billion more than expected, suggesting a rapid rise in needed funding as the scale of the disaster becomes clear.

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, who said the administration would later be seeking an additional $6.7 billion for disaster relief, called on Congress to lift the US debt ceiling, warning that otherwise the outlays could be affected.

Houston officials, meanwhile, were still struggling to bring order out of chaos as the flood waters retreated in most of the city.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner ordered a mandatory evacuation from neighborhoods in west Houston flooded by the release of water from two reservoirs.

Officials had said most of the 15,000 to 20,000 area residents had left, but some were holding out, putting a strain on emergency services.

- Putting lives back together -

Other residents went to work clearing waterlogged belongings from their homes, hauling salvageable possessions onto lawns to dry.

"It smelled like a pig pen," said Maline Johnson, 55, of the moment she cracked open the front door of her ranch-style house in the Gulf Meadows neighborhood south of downtown.

Mandy Kuhns, 27 and pregnant with her first child, returned to find her little house in ruins after being inundated by a foot of water.

Personal items from a once flooded home are seen displayed for insurance adjusters as residents begi...
Personal items from a once flooded home are seen displayed for insurance adjusters as residents begin the recovery process from Hurricane Harvey
Brendan Smialowski, AFP

"Basically, we'll start our lives all over again," she said.

The Houston Astros, the city's major league baseball team, offered residents some respite from the misery, playing in their home field for the first time since Harvey hit.

A few thousand evacuees and first responders piled into the stadium, joining together in a moment of silence for those who lost their lives, before the start of the double header against the New York Mets.

Andrea Potrow, an ardent Astros fan, said the game "gives people something else to think about."

"We need to hurry up and get back into what we're used to doing," she said. "This is helping."

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