NEW BERN, N.C. (AP) — Showing heart in a moment of crisis, President Donald Trump handed out hot dogs, hugs and comforting words in the Carolinas on Wednesday as he surveyed the wreckage left by Hurricane Florence.
With residents still recovering from torrential rains that left widespread destruction and injury, Trump sought to strike a balance between comforter and cheerleader. He has been criticized in the past for not showing sufficient empathy in the face of tragedy.
During a packed day, he visited both North and South Carolina, distributed meals at a church, walked amid piles of sodden furniture in damaged neighborhoods, offered hugs and handshakes to residents and discussed the response efforts with local and state officials.
"America grieves with you and our hearts break for you. God bless you," he said during a briefing at a marine base in Havelock, North Carolina. "We will never forget your loss. We will never leave your side. We're with you all the way."
He noted his love for Lake Norman, where he owns a golf club, and joked with a family who had a boat wash up against their house that "maybe it becomes theirs."
The whirlwind tour through the Carolinas showed Trump reaching out to connect with those reeling from a storm blamed for at least 37 deaths in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia since coming ashore on Friday. North and South Carolina both backed Trump in the 2016 election, and the president largely saw people who were happy to greet him. One man told the president he'd named his dog after Trump.
After a briefing on the recovery effort, Trump helped hand out Styrofoam containers of hot dogs and chips at a Baptist church in New Bern, a riverfront city on the coast that experienced severe flooding. The president leaned over and checked in with people as they drove through to pick up food.
"How's the house?" he asked one person. "You take care of yourself," he said.
Trump also praised the volunteers, at one point hugging a young helper and telling his parents, "You did a good job."
Trump's motorcade then drove through a storm-damaged neighborhood where water-logged sofa cushions, mattresses and downed trees were piled up along streets and boats lay on their sides after washing up along a grassy shore.
"How's it doing?" the president asked after one woman pointed at a house. He chatted and shook people's hands as he walked along a street strewn with trash, branches and sodden furniture, offering hugs and handshakes and posing for photos. Some people applauded as he went by.
Trump later traveled to Conway, South Carolina, where more flooding is expected still.
"Is everybody OK?" he asked those gathered, assuring them it was "going to be OK."
"Lot of money coming from Washington," he promised.
At Trump's first stop in North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper and federal and state officials briefed the president at a Marine Corps air station in Havelock, which sits among areas Florence hit hardest. The governor asked for help "cutting red tape" to get his state the federal assistance it will need to recover.
Cooper said Florence was an "epic" storm and noted that farmers suffered significant losses and scores of people lost their homes. Some 10,000 people remained in shelters.
"We will be there 100 percent," pledged Trump, wearing a wind breaker and khaki pants. "All of the folks from the federal government that are around the table are confirming it."
Cooper, a Democrat, said he'd told the president "over and over again" that the state was "going to need significant resources to recover "
"He promised 100 percent support and we're going to hold them to it," he said of Trump.
Trump spent the run-up to the storm focused on criticism of the federal response to a hurricane that battered Puerto Rico last year, rejecting the official death toll of nearly 3,000 and claiming Democrats manufactured the number to make him "look bad."
When Trump visited San Juan last October after Hurricane Maria, he pumped his fists in the air when he landed. The enduring image of the trip was of Trump at a church lobbing paper towels into the crowd as if shooting baskets. At the time, it seemed to reflect Trump's brand of playfulness. Many people in the crowd smiled and raised their phones to record the moment. But critics quickly dubbed it inappropriate for the grim crisis at hand.
Before that, Trump's trip to Texas after Hurricane Harvey battered the Houston area generated blowback for his failure to meet with victims of the storm. Four days later, he returned — and urged people at a Houston shelter to "have a good time." He also cheered on volunteers and emergency workers and handed out hot dogs and potato chips to residents. Some critics said the president's trip took on the tone of a victory lap for successful disaster management.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.