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Trump Returns To Texas, Asks Congress For $7.85 Billion In Harvey Relief

President Trump serves food to Hurricane Harvey victims at NRG Center in Houston, Texas, on Saturday.
Nicholas Kamm AFP/Getty Images
President Trump serves food to Hurricane Harvey victims at NRG Center in Houston, Texas, on Saturday.

Updated at 7:40 p.m. ET

The Trump administration is asking Congress for nearly $8 billion in Hurricane Harvey aid as the search-and-rescue phase is slowly giving way to recovery more than a week after the storm slammed into southeastern Texas.

Trump visits Texas and Louisiana

President Trump made his second trip to the region Saturday, beginning in Houston with a visit to the NRG Center, which is serving as a shelter for Harvey victims.

The president and first lady Melania Trump shook hands, hugged and took selfies with storm victims. Of the interactions with families, Trump said, "We saw a lot of happiness. It's been really nice," according to the pool report. "As tough as this was, it's been a wonderful thing, I think even for the country to watch it and for the world to watch."

When the president visited Corpus Christi and Austin on Tuesday, he did not meet with victims, according to The Associated Press.

In assessing the situation in Texas, Trump said, "The message is that things are working out well. Really, I think people appreciate what's been done. It's been done very efficiently, very well, and that's what we want."

Later Saturday, he spoke at the First Church of Pearland outside Houston. Addressing how long recovery might take, Trump said, "They say two years, three years. I think because this is Texas, you'll do it in six months."

He praised the work of various officials and motioned for Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Brock Long: "Brock, come here a minute, Brock. What a job you've done!"

Trump went on to say, "We do, we have a long way to go, but the water's disappearing. And you look at the neighborhoods and you see it's — we just saw it through there. Two days ago, even yesterday, they had water. Today it's all swept up and cleaned up."

Later Saturday, Trump met with emergency responders in Lake Charles, La., including the volunteer "Cajun Navy."

Request for federal funds

The trip comes one day after the White House asked Congress to appropriate "$7.85 billion in Federal resources for response and initial recovery efforts related to Hurricane Harvey."

The letter, sent by White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, said Harvey has already damaged more than 100,000 homes, left 43,500 people in shelters and resulted in nearly a half-million households registering with FEMA for help with housing and home repairs.

The bulk of the funding would go toward FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund. About $450 million is slated for the Small Business Administration's disaster loan program to help small businesses and homeowners get back on their feet.

As The Washington Post reports:

"The request is $2 billion more than White House and congressional leaders were expecting to seek as of Thursday. Government officials were continually reevaluating the damage and how much money was needed for the short-term response."

But the request is essentially just a down payment on a tab that will very likely be billions more.

The letter also calls on Congress to raise the debt ceiling quickly, warning that "the debt ceiling could, unless modified, affect critical response and recovery efforts related to Hurricane Harvey."

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has said that if the debt ceiling is not raised, the government only has until the end of the month before running out of cash.

In response to the letter, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, "The Senate stands ready to act quickly to provide this much-needed assistance to those impacted communities, and support first responders and volunteers."

But, as is often the case in Washington, a funding fight may be inevitable. Another complicating factor is that the National Flood Insurance Program, which many storm-ravaged residents are relying on, is set to expire Sept. 30, unless Congress acts.

In a series of tweets on Saturday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said his meeting with President Trump "was productive."

"Asked @POTUS for expedited @FEMA application process for flood insurance claims from first responders. He gave a big thumbs up," he tweeted.

Trump also authorized an increase in the amount of federal funding for debris removal from 75 percent to 90 percent, the White House said.

"Today, President Trump increased cost sharing to 90 percent Federal funding for debris removal, including direct Federal assistance, and a 100 percent Federal funding for emergency protective measures, including direct Federal assistance," the White House said in a statement.

Some areas still 'deadly dangerous'

As the rain has subsided and the focus has moved from rescue to rebuilding, chemical plant fires, lack of drinking water and still-swollen waterways mean many residents are still focused on simply surviving.

The region is grappling with areas that are "deadly dangerous," according to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Meanwhile, memorial and funeral services have already begun for some of Harvey's known 42 victims. That number could still rise as floodwaters recede and reveal Harvey's true toll.

Mandatory evacuation

On Saturday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Tuner ordered a mandatory evacuation, effective Sunday, for homes in west Houston. In the mandatory evacuation zone, he said, 4,600 apartments and houses were flooded, and that "most have already left."

After he asked residents to leave the area on Friday, 300 inundated homes in the zone remain unevacuated.

Beaumont struggles

Beaumont, Texas, is still in "crisis mode," reports NPR's Debbie Elliott. While the Neches River is expected to crest Saturday, the main water pump on the river has been knocked out of commission, leaving the city without clean water.

"It is about 7 feet above the record," Abbott said Friday of the Neches River. "This flooding poses an ongoing threat to Beaumont and the surrounding area."

North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann told Weekend Edition's Scott Simon: "I saw cars and trucks backed up on Highway 20 for miles, people just fleeing their homes, trying to get out of Beaumont and some of these surrounding towns."

Beaumont-area resident Nikki Stanner told Mann: "My family's been in this area for more than a hundred years, and this never flooded."

"This time it did. It's a mess and it stinks."

Houston schools

Houston's school superintendent said Saturday that while classes are still set to resume on Sept. 11, up to 12,000 students will have to relocate "to other facilities," according to The Associated Press.

Richard Carranza said around 75 schools have been damaged enough by the storm that they will not reopen for months. About 115 schools have been examined and cleaned up and will be ready to welcome students back on time. Forty schools still need to be assessed.

NPR's Emma Bowman contributed to this report.

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