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President Donald Trump sought to offer comfort Wednesday to families who suffered losses in Hurricane Florence, declaring "America grieves for you" as he arrived in North Carolina to survey damage left by the powerful storm.
Trump pledged to be with storm victims "100 percent" as they recover from Florence, which dumped torrential rains and caused heavy flooding that has required a massive recovery effort by state, federal and local officials.
The president traveled south Wednesday as the region continues to grapple with the aftermath of a storm that North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said was "epic." The death toll has climbed to at least 37 in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia since Florence made landfall on Friday.
At Trump's first stop, Cooper briefed the president at a Marine Corps air station that sits among areas hardest hit by Florence. The governor asked for help "cutting red tape" to get his state the federal assistance it will need to recover. He noted that farmers suffered significant losses and scores of people lost their homes. Some 10,000 people remain in shelters.
"We will be there 100 percent," said Trump, wearing a wind breaker and khaki pants, seated inside a hangar with federal and state officials. "All of the folks from the federal government that are around the table are confirming it."
Trump praised first responders and offered comfort to residents who suffered losses in the storm, saying: "To the families who have lost loved ones, America grieves with you, and our hearts break for you. God bless you. We will never forget your loss, we will never leave your side. We're with you all the way."
"And to all those impacted by this terrible storm, our entire American family is with you and ready to help. And you will recover," he said.
The grim aftermath of Florence, some of which Trump was expected to see Wednesday during stops in North Carolina and South Carolina, presented a challenge for a president who has struggled at times to show empathy in moments of national tragedy.
In a video posted on social media the day before his trip to the region, Trump praised first responders, offered prayers for victims and declared the storm "one of the wettest we've ever seen from the standpoint of water."
In North Carolina, where thousands of people remain in shelters or are staying elsewhere, Cooper has urged patience, noting that roads remain treacherous and some are still being closed for the first time. On Tuesday in Wilmington hundreds of people waited in long lines for water and other essentials.
"I know for many people this feels like a nightmare that just won't end," Cooper said.
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 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.
Mindful of the recurring criticism, Trump defended the administration's response to Florence on Twitter on Tuesday, predicting Democrats will eventually look to criticize the efforts for political reasons.
"Right now, everybody is saying what a great job we are doing with Hurricane Florence — and they are 100% correct," Trump said. "But don't be fooled, at some point in the near future the Democrats will start ranting that FEMA, our Military, and our First Responders, who are all unbelievable, are a disaster and not doing a good job. This will be a total lie, but that's what they do, and everybody knows it! "