U.S. President Donald Trump met with federal and state leaders in Florida on Thursday as he surveyed damage from Hurricane Irma and praised the rapid response of the recovery effort.
"We have been very, very fast and we had to be," Trump said at an airport hangar where he was joined by Vice-President Mike Pence, Gov. Rick Scott and other leaders.
Am leaving now for Florida to see our GREAT first responders and to thank the U.S. Coast Guard, FEMA etc. A real disaster, much work to do!— @realDonaldTrump
Trump quickly injected politics into the visit, telling reporters that he was hopeful that Scott, a two-term Republican governor, will challenge a Democratic senator next year.
"I don't know what he's going to do. But I know at a certain point it ends for you and we can't let it end. So I hope he runs for the Senate" against incumbent Bill Nelson, Trump said.
For Trump, the visit to Fort Myers and Naples along Florida's battered southwestern coast offered him the chance to see how people were coping and how the Federal Emergency Management Agency was responding.
But as his comments about Scott suggested, politics was not far from the surface in Florida, which has been the largest and most pivotal state in recent presidential elections. Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in Florida last year by about one percentage point.
"We're with you today. We're going to be with you tomorrow and we're going to be with you until Florida rebuilds bigger and better than ever before," Pence said.
After Harvey struck Texas, Trump drew criticism for having minimal interaction with residents during his first trip in late August. He saw little damage and offered few expressions of concern.
On his second trip, with stops in Texas and Louisiana, he was more hands-on, visiting with those driven from their homes by Harvey, touring a Houston mega-shelter housing hundreds of displaced people and briefly walking streets lined with soggy, discarded possessions.
The president monitored Irma over the weekend from Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.
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Nearly half of Florida was engulfed by Irma, which left flooded streets, damaged homes and displaced residents in its wake. The Keys felt Irma's full fury when the hurricane roared in after wreaking devastation in the Caribbean, but the extent of the damage has been an unanswered question because some places have been unreachable. Trump's Thursday itinerary didn't include a stop in the Florida Keys, where a quarter of the homes were destroyed.
Florida's southwestern coast, where Trump was headed, is a haven for retirees seeking warm weather and beautiful sunsets across the Gulf of Mexico. Many communities there are still cleaning up or without power or air conditioning.
In Lee County, which includes Cape Coral and Fort Myers, the Florida Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said 66 per cent of the area's 290,000 electrical customers were still without power Wednesday. Widespread outages led to long lines outside of the relatively few stores, gas stations and restaurants that had reopened.
The situation was even worse to the south in Collier County, where Naples is located. Days after Irma passed, almost 80 per cent of homes and businesses were still without electricity there, and floodwaters still covered some communities entirely.
As of Wednesday, the number of people without electricity in Florida's late-summer heat was 6.8 million — about a third of the state's population. Utility officials warned it could take 10 days or more for power to be fully restored. The number of people remaining in shelters fell to under 13,000.