Macon – President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump flew to central Georgia on Monday to survey the path of destruction left by Hurricane Michael, which killed at least 17 people across the Southeast, knocked out power to millions and devastated the Peach State’s multibillion-dollar agricultural industry.
The Trumps stopped at a Red Cross center here and visited with local cotton, peanut and pecan farmers, who suffered substantial crop losses and were still struggling without power. White House reporters from other news organizations traveling with the president shared their accounts of those visits.
One Georgia cotton farmer, Clay Pirkle, told Trump: “We went from the best crop to no crop in about six hours.”
Another cotton farmer, Kevin Rentz, told the president he lost his entire crop and was not sure of the damage to his peanuts yet.
“You’ll get it back,” Trump told him.
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The president first stopped at a Red Cross facility in Macon, where he said he would ask Congress for additional disaster aid funding. When he was asked about climate change and if he ever thought weather would occupy so much of his time during his presidency, he responded: “Weather has been a factor and yet, they say (the) worst hurricanes were 50 years ago.
“For a long period of time, we’ve had very few (hurricanes),” he said. “I have a home in Palm Beach, Florida, and frankly, for years, we had none. And then, the last couple of years we had more. Hopefully, we’ll go back to many years of having none. We’ve been hit by the weather, there is no doubt about it.”
Gov. Nathan Deal greeted the Trumps after they landed at Robins Air Force Base.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor, and Brock Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, accompanied the president and first lady during their visit.
Trump also weighed in on several other issues during his stay in Georgia, including the disappearance of a dissident Saudi journalist in Turkey. Trump said he is sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet with Saudi King Salman about Jamal Khashoggi, the missing columnist for The Washington Post who is feared dead.
The president called the nation’s immigration laws the “dumbest” in history, and said “we are getting them changed one by one.”
Further, he responded to the news that U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren had released the results of a DNA test that she said indicated she had Native American ancestry. In releasing the results, the Massachusetts Democrat was responding to taunts from Trump and others, who have mocked her as “Pocahontas” and claimed she used her heritage to gain an advantage when she was a law professor. Trump had vowed to contribute $1 million to Warren’s favorite charity if she took a DNA test and it showed she had Native American roots.
“I’ll only do it if I can test her personally, and that will not be something I will enjoy doing either,” he said.
On Sunday, Trump issued a disaster declaration for Georgia and ordered federal aid for parts of the Peach State affected by the storm. The president’s decision makes certain federal funding available, including grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs. Federal funding will also be made available to state and local government agencies and nonprofit groups on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work in many counties.
The president stopped in Georgia after surveying hurricane damage in Lynn Haven, Fla., where volunteers were registering storm victims.
“Somebody said it was like a very wide, extremely wide, tornado,” Trump said while in Florida. “This was beyond any winds they’ve seen for, I guess, 50 years. Nobody has seen anything like it.”
Georgia Power said that as of noon Monday it had restored power to 97 percent of its customers affected by the storm. Candace Reese, spokeswoman for Dougherty County, said Sunday that about 14,000 people were without power in the Albany area, but officials expected power to be back by midweek.
Various churches and Tyson Foods were offering hot meals as 10 extra chainsaw crews headed down to cut the city out from under the many trees that fell.
Phil Buckhalter, a 57-year-old Early County cotton, peanut and cattle farmer, said Monday the electricity was still out, with power lines down and many power poles snapped in two. His vast acres of cotton are battered too badly to sell. And the peanuts in his field may be swamped if he doesn’t get them up soon, he fears.
Most farmers who Buckhalter knows have generators, but they spent days giving gallons of gas away to less fortunate neighbors, which dented the supply. Most residents he knew had started heading over the Alabama border to get food and gas.
Asked how bad the storm will prove to be to his business, the farmer, worn out from working with his neighbors to clear roads and get his property in order, had to laugh. He seemed resigned to a long recovery.
“I can’t answer that until it’s all over with,” he said, “but I’ll tell you that it’s gonna be a hit.”
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said his office is scrambling to get generators up and running and to reopen sites where peanuts can be graded and dried.
“One of the things we are working on right now is bringing things back on line,” he said as he awaited Trump in Macon. “There are so many places and people that are still without power. And our team has been working together on some of those priority places to get plants back open.”
The New York Times, the Associated Press, The Washington Post and AJC staff writers Ben Brasch, Greg Bluestein and Joshua Sharpe contributed to this report.