ROCKPORT, Texas — Donning blue work gloves and dispensing hugs, Vice President Mike Pence cleared storm debris and comforted Texans grappling with the aftermath of Harvey’s destruction on Thursday, bringing a more personal touch to the hurricane zone than President Donald Trump did during his visit two days earlier.
Sleeves rolled up, Pence briefly walked door-to-door in Rockport, a small tourist town where Harvey first slammed ashore as a Category 4 hurricane. The extent of the ruin could be measured in the mounds of black garbage bags heaped outside nearly every home, and Pence — wearing jeans and cowboy boots — worked up a sweat in the 90-degree heat as he helped clear tree limbs at one boarded-up residence.
“We’re going to stay with you every step until we bring southeast Texas back bigger and better than ever before,” Pence promised the crowd that gathered at a church blown wide open by Harvey’s force. The vice president’s wife, Karen Pence, offered a prayer seeking blessings for those affected by the storm, and people later broke into singing “God Bless America.”
Brittany Naro, a new mother from Corpus Christi, was on hand at one of the homes that Pence visited and said his presence meant a lot, “because this is devastating.”
Speaking of both Pence and Trump, she added: “They didn’t have to come. What more can you ask for?”
While Pence’s visit, which also included a tour of the area aboard a V-22 Osprey military aircraft, was all about making personal connections with storm victims and volunteers helping on the recovery effort, Trump focused on meeting with state and local emergency management officials during his visit to Corpus Christi and Austin two days earlier.
The president also gave a short, impromptu speech to cheering supporters who had gathered outside the fire station where he received a briefing in Corpus Christi.
“What a crowd, what a turnout,” Trump declared, attesting to the fortitude of Texans. The president capped his speech by waving a Texas flag.
The president drew some criticism for not directly mentioning the loss of life and suffering of hurricane victims during his visit. He tweeted Wednesday that after seeing “first hand the horror & devastation” wrought by Harvey “my heart goes out even more so to the great people of Texas!”
Trump, however, saw little damage during his visit to Corpus Christi — mostly boarded-up windows, a few downed tree limbs and fences askew. He also visited the state emergency management operations center in Austin.
Julian Castro, a former Obama administration official and former San Antonio mayor, told CNN it was good that Pence was visiting “because he’s doing a little better job” than Trump at putting the focus on victims.
“People need to feel like he understands the depth of the tragedy and the pain,” Castro said of Trump.
The president plans to return to the storm region on Saturday, and is sure to see far greater evidence of Harvey’s wrath: He has tentative stops planned in inundated Houston and Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry, a former Texas governor who joined Pence on Thursday’s trip, told reporters the president had been eager to make an early visit to those directly affected by the storm, but was advised to instead travel to Corpus Christi or Austin, “where no search-and-rescue resources would be pulled away.”
“The president went to the right place. He literally and figuratively waved the flag,” Perry said. “The American citizens and Texans know he cares, he’s paying attention.”
Pence also was joined by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, several other Cabinet members and the Rev. Franklin Graham, who brought volunteers from his aid agency, Samaritan’s Purse, to help with the clean-up.
The vice president made a stop at a food distribution center in Victoria, where items such as cans of tuna, Keebler cookies and Annie’s cheddar squares were passed out. He said later at a news conference in Corpus Christi that he and his wife were moved by the work of volunteers.
“To see the outpouring of compassion and concern was deeply inspiring to us,” Pence said. “Every American should know that even in this difficult time, this disastrous storm, the very best of the people of Texas and the very best of the people of America are shining forth.”
Unlike Trump, who was a prominent business mogul and reality television star before his election, Pence had plenty of hands-on experience with disaster relief in his time as Indiana governor. He briefly left the campaign trail about a month after becoming Trump’s running mate last year to survey tornado damage in Kokomo, Indiana.
During the presidential campaign last summer, the two men traveled together to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to tour flood damage.
Rockport was virtually impassable after Harvey struck, with trees and downed power lines blocking every street and roadway. Even Thursday, parts of the town of 10,000 were accessible only by foot as electrical poles and wires pushed over by Harvey remained draped close to the ground. The extent of the destruction, and Rockport’s isolation, contribute to the slow recovery.
Some residents have said they’ve been told it will be two or three weeks before electrical service resumes. Local schools are closed until mid-September.
Tourists who once visited kitschy shops, boutiques and watering holes in a quaint downtown area would be disappointed to see many of them now: Several have their roofs peeled away, leaving their wares exposed to Harvey’s heavy rains. Several aren’t standing at all.
Thomas reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Kelly P. Kissel in Rockport, Texas, contributed to this report.