When Mabrey Smith heard on Wednesday that President Trump might pass by the used-car dealership he runs with his girlfriend here, he dug through his belongings and emerged with two lawn signs from the 2016 campaign — “Trump-Pence.”
Then Smith placed them along the road and waited for Trump’s motorcade to head to New Bern so the president could view damage from Hurricane Florence. While Trump has continued to face criticism for his administration’s flawed response to Hurricanes Maria and Irma in Puerto Rico last year — and more recently for his false claims that the island’s 2,975 death toll has been exaggerated by Democrats to damage him politically — Smith, 57, had no doubts about the president’s dedication to the Carolinas.
“He would walk through fire for us,” Smith said.
Trump arrived on Air Force One at a North Carolina military base, where he got a briefing from state and federal officials. He praised the recovery efforts as “incredible” and then lapsed into his typical hyperbole: “They’re talking about it all over the world,” he said.
Trump appeared to have his business on his mind as well. At one point, he asked a state official about the status of Lake Norman, which is near Charlotte, more than 200 miles away.
“I love that area. I can’t tell you why, but I love that area,” the president said. His company owns the Trump National Golf Club on the lake.
After leaving the military base in his motorcade, Trump’s first stop was a church near downtown New Bern. Accompanied by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, Trump handed out packages containing hot dogs, peas and apple sauce to people affected by the storm who slowly drove by for the free meals.
“Hi, everybody, how’s your house?” he said to people in one car.
The city of 30,000 was one of the hardest hit by Florence, and repairing the damage promises to be an arduous process. At a law office downtown, workers have been ripping out wood flooring that was damaged from water that bubbled up from below when the sump pumps failed. The office manager, Sissy Chesnutt, 61, fears crucial paper records could become moldy, adding to the storm’s toll.
“It’s more loss and more loss,” she said.
Trump’s motorcade headed toward a neighborhood near the Neuse River, which spilled over its banks during the storm. The contents of people’s flooded homes have been dumped in mounds on sidewalks — candy-colored carpet padding, wooden furniture, upholstered chairs, electronics, mattresses.
Trump hugged one woman and spoke to a man who told the president he named his dog after him. “That’s nice,” said Trump, who famously doesn’t like pets.
The visit was not without its awkward moments. At one point he gazed at a yacht that had washed ashore onto an older man’s property. Trump said to the man with a smile, “At least you got a nice boat out of the deal.”
“They don’t know whose boat that is,” Trump said afterward to reporters. “What’s the law? Maybe it becomes theirs.”
A church is surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Florence in Conway, S.C.(Sean Rayford / Getty Images)
Floodwaters surround a barn after Hurricane Florence struck the Carolinas near Wallace, S.C.(Sean Rayford / Getty Images)
The Lumber River overflows onto a stretch of Interstate 95 in Lumberton, N.C.(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)
A resident surveys a flooded road in Lumberton, N.C.(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)
Tree limbs are caught under a railway bridge as Russell Maloy checks the level of the Cape Fear River in Fayetteville, N.C.(David Goldman / Associated Press)
An American flag flies in the wind as the Cape Fear River rises to near record heights in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Fayetteville, N.C.(David Goldman / Associated Press)
Scott Jones wades through about three feet of floodwater down the street he grew up on to check the condition of his father’s home after the Nuese River and a nearby creek overflowed during Hurricane Florence in Kinston, N.C.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Homes and a marina are flooded as a result of high tides and rain from hurricane Florence which moved through the area in Jacksonville, N.C.(Steve Helber / Associated Press)
Bob Richling carries Iris Darden, 84, out of her flooded home as her daughter-in-law, Pam Darden, gathers her belongings in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Spring Lake, N.C.(David Goldman / Associated Press)
An above ground pool is surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Florence in Lumberton, N.C.(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
A man carries a flag to place on his truck as members of a punt team with the United States Coast Guard preform search and rescue through flood waters in Lumberton, N.C.(Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post)
Cars are submerged in a neighborhood in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Fayetteville, N.C.(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
Residents paddle a boat through a flooded neighborhood in Lumberton, N.C.(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)
A member of the United States Coast Guard is seen reflected in the window of a house as he wades through flood waters for a wellness check on citizens who choose to stay in their home in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence on Sept 16, 2018 in Lumberton, N.C.(Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post)
A man wades across a bridge flooded by Hurricane Florence in Pollocksville, N.C.(ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP/Getty Images)
Chavez Gallegos helps his family move out of a flooded home in Kinston, N.C., in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.(Travis Long / Raleigh News & Observer)
Floodwaters surround buildings on Front Street in downtown Swansboro N.C.(Tom Copeland / Associated Press)
A road is washed out by the rains from Hurricane Florence as it passed through the area in Fayetteville, N.C.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
A boat pushed ashore by Hurricane Florence rests in front of a damaged home in New Bern, N.C.(Gray Whitley / Associated Press)
Flood waters from Hurricane Florence surround a house and flow along the street in Fayetteville, N.C.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Homes along the New River are flooded as a result of high tides and rain from Hurricane Florence, which moved through the area in Jacksonville, N.C.(Steve Helber / Associated Press)
A man moves his horses from rising water in Lumberton, N.C., following flooding from now Tropical Depression Florence.(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)
Helen McKoy walks down a flooded street in her neighborhood as Florence continues to dump heavy rain in Fayetteville, N.C.(David Goldman / Associated Press)
Members of the North Carolina Task Force urban search and rescue team wade through a flooded neighborhood looking for residents who stayed behind as Florence continues to dump heavy rain in Fayetteville, N.C.(David Goldman / Associated Press)
Erick Martinez grills chicken on the porch of his home as floodwaters from Hurricane Florence rise in the Magnolia Mobile Home Park north of Lumberton, N.C.(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA / Shutterstock)
A resident walks from his flooded house toward the crew of the Cajun Navy in Lumberton, N.C.(Alex Edelman / AFP/Getty Images)
Floodwaters from Hurricane Florence rush down Cool Spring Street, inundating the St. James Church in Fayetteville, N.C.(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA / Shutterstock)
Trump easily beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in Craven County, where New Bern is located, and by a narrower margin won the state on his way to his electoral college victory. Residents seemed buoyed by the president’s visit despite the devastation.
“Everyone in this whole neighborhood lost everything they got,” said Kenny Boyd, 64, a retired mechanic.
He evacuated his rented one-floor home when the water reached the street outside, and he took shelter in a family member’s upstairs apartment nearby. When he returned, the water line etched in the wall was nearly up to his knee, high enough to damage the electrical systems. Boyd flipped through old photo albums to dry out the pictures of his travels through the years.
After leaving New Bern, Trump flew by helicopter to Conway, on the South Carolina coast, where he visited with local officials and Republican Gov. Henry McMaster.
The state could see worse flooding as water flows south from North Carolina, McMaster warned. Trump promised that the federal government would provide support throughout the cleanup and rebuilding efforts.
“You all know where to call me,” the president said.
3:25 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with staff reporting.
The story was originally published at 8:55 a.m.