As President Trump arrived in Texas on Tuesday to witness the damage from Tropical Storm Harvey, he was greeted in Corpus Christi by a microcosm of a divided nation: a mix of well-wishers and protesters, both thrilled and furious he was here.
Dozens of people stood along Agnes Street, a quiet stretch of road just across a cotton field from the city’s airport . Some held up protest signs. Some held giant American flags. Some just held up their hands, waving hello.
It was a windy morning, with blue skies, sunshine and fat white clouds. Compared to other areas along the Gulf Coast, Corpus Christi survived with minimal damage. Palm fronds sat in roadways. Traffic lights were askew. Roofs were twisted. Sand bags blocked an entrance to City Hall.
With the president in town, Corpus Christi police officers and Nueces County sheriff’s deputies were parked on seemingly every overpass for miles.
Phillip Gonzalez, who was born and raised in Corpus Christi, sat in the back of his black Hummer on Agnes Street, wearing a camouflage hat with a neon orange “USA” embroidered on the front and “TRUMP” on the back. An American flag flapped from atop his vehicle.
“This is pretty special to have the president fly in and show his support for the people who are hurting across Texas,” he said.
Gonzalez, who retired after four decades in the oil industry, said he was lucky his house didn’t sustain any damage when Harvey made landfall as a hurricane.
When Air Force One touched down at 11:18 a.m. CDT, Gonzalez stood beside the cotton field and clapped softly.
“Golly, that’s neat!” he said, snapping photos with his cellphone. “That sends chills down my spine.”
Then he pulled out a pair of binoculars.
“I consider myself a blessed man to have this opportunity,” he said.
Ben Falcon, 17, another Corpus Christi native, had a different set of emotions as he stood along Agnes Street watching the president’s motorcade pass on the adjacent Highway 44. He held an orange poster that read, “Love Trumps Hate!”
“This is a blatant politicization of the hurricane efforts and everything that just happened to this community,” Falcon said.
Falcon was at home Friday night as the storm approached. As he watched television news for updates, he learned that Trump had pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona who had been convicted of criminal contempt for defying a court order to end racial profiling of Latinos.
The timing infuriated Falcon, who noted that Corpus Christi has a large Latino population.
A group of women stood along the road with signs that read “Climate Change Made Harvey Deadly” and “What are you going to do next? Pardon Harvey?”
A woman riding in a big white truck passed them, flipping them off with both hands. Another woman drove by, mouthing, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” Others just shook their heads and waved their flags.
Silvina Alarcon, 29, who led a group of immigrant rights protesters in a demonstration near the airport, held a sign with a message for Trump: “I’ll show you my papers if you show me your taxes.”
Alarcon said she was motivated by the pardon of Arpaio and worries that Trump would rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that gives legal status to people brought to the U.S. as children.
Alarcon is an immigrant herself, having moved to the U.S. from Bolivia when she was 13. She said some of her relatives are in the country illegally.
“This is very personal,” she said. “President Trump is using this visit as a photo op but also to mask his hateful, racist agenda.” She said his trip was “meant to get faux, cardboard images of him acting concerned for us.”
Alarcon said she spent Friday night at her fiance’s parents’ house in Corpus Christi. The scariest moments came listening to storm warnings on a battery-powered radio. In the end, the weekend damage was limited to toppled fences, broken trees and electricity failures.
Trump, clad in a “USA” ball cap and a windbreaker with a presidential seal, promised on Tuesday that the long and expensive recovery would serve as a model.
“We want to do it better than ever before,” he said. “We want to be looked at in five years, in 10 years from now as, this is the way to do it.”