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When natural disasters hit, past presidents addressed the human toll

President Trump, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, waved as they arrived on Air Force One at Corpus Christi International Airport in Corpus Christi, Texas, on Tuesday.
President Trump, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, waved as they arrived on Air Force One at Corpus Christi International Airport in Corpus Christi, Texas, on Tuesday.(Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Twenty-five years ago almost to the day, President George H.W. Bush visited South Florida to survey the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, the massive storm that killed dozens of people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes in late-August 1992.

After touring the storm-ravaged neighborhoods in Miami-Dade County, Bush met with victims, local officials, and emergency crews on the ground. With rolled up sleeves and sweat dripping down his face, he praised their resilience in the wake of the disaster and promised them the nation’s support. ‘‘Whatever it takes, whatever it takes,’’ he said. ‘‘The capacity of one American to help another, that’s the message I get loud and clear.’’

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President Bill Clinton struck a similar tone years later when he visited tornado victims and first responders in Oklahoma, telling them that they represented ‘‘what is very best in this country, the way you have reacted to this.’’

When President George W. Bush arrived in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he offered victims a personal message — one they needed to hear given his administration’s infamously slow and inept response to the storm. ‘‘To all who carry a burden of loss,’’ he said, ‘‘I extend the deepest sympathy of our country.’’

And when President Barack Obama spoke from a beachside town in New Jersey that was ravaged by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, he told residents much the same. ‘‘We are here for you,’’ he said, ‘‘and we will not forget.’’

Little of that high-minded rhetoric was on display when President Trump visited Texas on Tuesday to discuss the devastation from Hurricane Harvey.

He made virtually no mention of the storm’s victims, and there was no indication he met with any. He didn’t call for donations or volunteers. He didn’t mourn the dead.

Instead, Trump marveled at the size of Harvey (“it’s epic, what happened”), gushed about the crowd that had gathered to see him (“what a turnout”), offered hyperbole about the recovery effort (it will be ‘‘something very special”), and thanked his FEMA administrator (“a man who has really become very famous on television over the last couple of days”).

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At one point he told a crowd in Corpus Christi — some carrying Trump regalia and chanting ‘‘USA, USA.’’ — that ‘‘we are here to take care of you, it’s going well.’’ And he added later that ‘‘Texas can handle anything.’’

But that was about as empathetic as he got. There was no call to action, no sweeping reassurance that his administration — and indeed, the nation — had adopted the storm victims’ struggle as its own. All told, it felt a bit like a political rally, as The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson reported.

An array of political observers and others said Trump’s message was weak and tone deaf considering the immense scale of Harvey’s destruction.

‘‘There was something missing from what President Trump said, that’s the empathy for the people who suffer,’’ former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer said on Fox News Tuesday.