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.
Florence has killed at least 37 people in North and South Carolina since making landfall on Friday, and officials have urged evacuees to stay away from damaged areas while the emergency response continues. Some neighborhoods remain flooded and rivers are expected to rise even more in the coming days.
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.”
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.