By CATHERINE LUCEY and KEN THOMAS
FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — President Donald Trump met with federal and state leaders in Florida on Thursday as he surveyed damage from Hurricane Irma and praised the rapid response of the recovery effort.
“We have been very, very fast and we had to be,” Trump said at an airport hangar where he was joined by Vice President Mike Pence, Gov. Rick Scott and other leaders.
The president said his administration is “trying to keep them as happy as we can under the circumstances. In many cases, they’ve lost their homes and it’s a tough situation.”
Trump quickly injected politics into the visit, telling reporters that he was hopeful that Scott, a two-term GOP governor, will challenge a Democratic senator next year.
“I don’t know what he’s going to do. But I know at a certain point it ends for you and we can’t let it end. So I hope he runs for the Senate” against incumbent Bill Nelson, Trump said.
For Trump, the visit to Fort Myers and Naples along Florida’s battered southwestern coast offered him the chance to see how people were coping and how the Federal Emergency Management Agency was responding.
But as his comments about Scott suggested, politics was not far from the surface in Florida, which has been the largest and most pivotal state in recent presidential elections. Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in Florida last year by about 1 percentage point.
“We’re with you today. We’re going to be with you tomorrow and we’re going to be with you until Florida rebuilds bigger and better than ever before,” Pence said.
After Harvey struck Texas, Trump drew criticism for having minimal interaction with residents during his first trip in late August. He saw little damage and offered few expressions of concern.
On his second visit, to Texas and Louisiana, he was more hands-on. He toured a Houston shelter housing hundreds of displaced people and walking streets lined with soggy, discarded possessions.
The president monitored Irma over this past weekend from Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.
Nearly half of Florida was engulfed by Irma, which left flooded streets, damaged homes and displaced residents in its wake.
Florida’s southwestern coast is a haven for retirees seeking warm weather and beautiful sunsets across the Gulf of Mexico. Many communities are still cleaning up or without power or air conditioning.
In Lee County, which includes Cape Coral and Fort Myers, the Florida Emergency Management Agency said 66 percent of the area’s 290,000 electrical customers were still without power Wednesday.
Widespread outages led to long lines outside of the relatively few stores, gas stations and restaurants that had reopened.
The situation was even worse to the south in Collier County, home to Naples. Days after Irma passed, almost 80 percent of homes and businesses were still without electricity, and floodwaters still covered some communities entirely.
As of Thursday morning, the number of homes and businesses without electricity in Florida was 2.69 million, according to the agency. That’s 25.6 percent of all customers in the state.
Thomas reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman in Washington contributed to this report.