NAPLES, Fla. — President Donald Trump traveled to Florida on Thursday to take part in what has quickly become a familiar tableau for him: the windbreaker-clad commander-in-chief, surveying hurricane devastation, bucking up local officials, and alighting from his helicopter to distribute food and handshakes.
This time, it was Naples, the Gulf Coast town of multimillion-dollar seafront villas and inland mobile-home parks that was torn asunder by Hurricane Irma. Trump stopped at one of the latter, where an excavator was removing the twisted remains of a mobile home.
“Don’t forget to take one,” the president said to a friendly crowd as he stood behind a silver tin of hoagies, part of a staging area with food and water for residents and rescue workers. “Here’s a nice one!”
Trump arrived in Naples after he was briefed in nearby Fort Myers on the recovery operation by federal emergency management and Florida officials, including Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Rick Scott, and Pam Bondi, the state attorney general.
It was Trump’s third visit to storm-ravaged parts of the United States in the past few weeks after two major hurricanes, and he again praised the federal government’s performance. “We’re doing a good job in Florida,” Trump said to reporters on Air Force One.
“We’re going to see some of the folks and make sure they’re happy,” he said in Fort Myers, acknowledging that many had lost their homes in the destruction.
At the mobile home park, called Naples Estates, Trump was in his element. Many of the residents had voted for him, and as on a previous trip to hurricane-scarred Texas, where he marveled at the size of a crowd that had turned out for him, he mixed words of encouragement for their ruined houses with glee at their signs of support.
When one man shouted, “Where was Obama during the last hurricane? On a golf course,” Trump stopped and asked whether he had voted for him, according to a White House pool report.
“Best vote of your life?” the president said, with a grin.
After Trump left, another resident, Kathy Rice, beamed as she drove her golf cart back toward her home. “The president,” she proclaimed to neighbors lingering around, “touched my dog.”
Trump had leaned over to pet the dog, a 3-year-old Chihuahua mix, as residents gathered to receive the hoagies, a mix of cheese and either turkey, roast beef or ham, bananas and bottled water. He complimented Rice on her black “Bikers for Trump” shirt. “The bikers love us!” Trump said, clapping her on the shoulder with a broad grin.
“They’re everything I thought they would be,” Rice said later, referring to the president and first lady Melania Trump.
Nancy Newkirk, a pencil wedged under her bandanna, stood outside her home smoking a cigarette. The 67-year-old, who works as a meat cutter in a grocery store, did not get to greet the president personally. But it meant a lot, she said, that Donald Trump had come to their complex.
“He actually saw for his own eyes,” Newkirk said. “This is Naples Estates, and it’s trashed.”
Part of the roof of her mobile home had collapsed, weighed down by water still collecting in the storm’s aftermath. Water left brown stains on the ceiling that still remained. A musty smell clung to the home she and her husband, Dave, had lived in since 2009. But they still fared better than some of their neighbors, who lost their houses and possessions.
Hurricane Irma left the Florida Keys with the most damage, but it battered all of South Florida and left millions without power across the Southeast. Eight people died in a nursing home in Hollywood, Florida, and others were hospitalized after the storm knocked out air conditioning.
In Naples, streets are flooded, with water pooling around piles of debris that include broken fences, tables, and trees. Every home has its own pile: broken trees, pieces of roofing, and metal slats. One home had a For Sale sign in the window and exposed pink insulation on the roof.
As of Wednesday, at least 14 other deaths in Florida, six in South Carolina and Georgia and 38 across the Caribbean had been attributed to the storm. Some 600 shelters have been opened in Florida, Scott said.
The governor praised the federal government for its swift response to the storm. Officials from the military and the Coast Guard were “constantly calling” and asking what resources they could provide to help the state, he said.
For Trump, his aides said, the back-to-back hurricanes offered a chance to immerse himself in the details of major logistical operations. They have also been a welcome shift in focus from the storms inside the White House, which consumed the first six months of his presidency.
The visit Thursday was the president’s first to Florida since the storm. Trump traveled to Texas and Louisiana this month after Hurricane Harvey to see the rescue efforts there.
In his tweets and public statements, the president has often marveled at the size of the storms, drawing criticism from some that he initially said little about the human suffering left in their wake.
“We had two massive hurricanes, the likes of which, I guess, our country has never seen,” he said Wednesday while meeting with members of Congress. “I don’t think they have ever seen. One was the biggest ever in water and the other was the biggest ever in wind.”
Even on Thursday, Trump adapted uneasily to the role of aid worker. At the staging center in Naples Estates, he picked up a banana and asked whether anybody wanted one. He tried, but failed, to put on a pair of thin white plastic gloves to serve the hoagies.
“They’re too small,” Trump said of the gloves, which ripped along his thumb, exposing skin.