HOUSTON: President Donald Trump handed out box lunches and hugged children in a Houston emergency shelter on Saturday, as he witnessed the devastation wrought after Hurricane Harvey unleashed apocalyptic floods on America's fourth-largest city.
The sprawling Texas city was taking tentative steps back to normalcy after a week of flooding that damaged 40,000 to 50,000 homes and sent tens of thousands fleeing to emergency shelters.
Harvey has been blamed for at least 42 deaths. The White House has asked Congress for US$7.85 billion for Harvey-related "response and initial recovery efforts," calling it a "down payment" on the long-term cost of recovering from the record flooding, which is expected to be in the tens of billions.
"We're signing a lot of documents now to get money. $7.9 billion," Trump said at the giant NRG Center exhibition space that has been turned into a shelter. "We signed it and now it's going through a very quick, hopefully quick process."
Trump and his wife Melania shook hands and posed for selfies at the shelter with evacuees eager to greet the VIPs.
Accompanied by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Trump went to a section of the hall where a homemade banner that read "KID ZONE!!" hung on the wall. The president was quickly surrounded by small children who gave him hugs, handshakes and high-fives.
One young girl grabbed the president in an embrace -and the grandfather of eight responded by picking her up and giving her a kiss.
"As tough as this was, it's been a wonderful thing. I think even for the country to watch it, for the world to watch. It's been beautiful," he told reporters.
Clearly enjoying himself, Trump then joined volunteers handing out box lunches. He chatted with evacuees who rushed over, while many more crowded behind security barricades with their phones aloft.
Kevin Jason Hipolito, 37, an unemployed Houston resident who was rescued from the roof of his car after his first floor apartment flooded, said he was pleased that Trump visited the city after omitting it on an earlier visit to the state.
"I'm a Democrat. It raises the morale. When he went to Corpus, I was like, 'man he just forgot about us.' This shows a lot of support. It perks up morale."
But Ima George, a 42-year-old whose young son was in the children's play area, was less impressed.
"The first time he came to Texas he didn't even bother to come to Houston," she said. "It doesn't make any difference if he came or not. The city is supporting itself and supporting other people outside of the city."
Downtown cafes were open and a couple was even seen jogging, though area hotels were packed with exhausted families - including many who have received vouchers to help pay for rooms. Some checked in carrying their belongings in plastic bags.
The president is in Texas for his second visit since the megastorm hit, and later touched down in Lake Charles, Louisiana, which also saw serious flooding. He has declared Sunday a "National Day of Prayer" for victims of Hurricane Harvey.
And as floodwaters receded in Houston, nearby cities such as Beaumont - which had lost its water supply - and Port Arthur struggled to recover.
One week after Harvey slammed into southeast Texas as a Category Four hurricane, rescuers were still out searching for people still inside flooded homes.
The White House's request for nearly US$8 billion in emergency storm aid - made in a letter late Friday to House Speaker Paul Ryan - was US$2 billion more than expected, suggesting a rapid rise in needed funding as the scale of the disaster becomes clear.
White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, who said the administration would later be seeking an additional US$6.7 billion for disaster relief, called on Congress to lift the US debt ceiling, warning that otherwise the outlays could be affected.
Meanwhile, rescuers in Port Arthur were still evacuating residents who refused to leave their homes during the storm.
Jonathan Caldwell, a former police officer, said he and some friends rescued about a dozen people in one flooded neighbourhood Friday. "We had little ones on our shoulders, wading through chest deep water this morning," he said.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said most of the city was "now dry," but urged residents living near two overflowing reservoirs to leave their homes.
Officials said most of the 15,000 to 20,000 area residents have left. Some however were holding out, straining emergency workers who have to maintain services to them, including providing them with water.
There was a bright spot for Houston this weekend, as the Astros, the city's major league baseball team, will be home for games.
The Astros abandoned their stadium this week for three games in Florida against the Texas Rangers.
"We hope that these games can serve as a welcome distraction for our city that is going through a very difficult time," Astros president Reid Ryan said. "We hope that we can put smiles on some faces."
They will host a double-header against the New York Mets on Saturday.