Hurricane Harvey
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US President Donald Trump holds a map of the Texas Gulf coast. Photo: Bloomberg

Hurricane Harvey offers US President Donald Trump the opportunity to show empathy – but can he deliver?

More than 1 million people have been displaced by Harvey and up to 50 are feared dead in flooding that paralysed Houston and swelled river levels to record highs

For a man who prefers to project a glowering brusqueness, Donald Trump’s trip to Houston on Saturday will provide him with the opportunity to show a warmer, more empathetic side – and perhaps connect with some Americans critical of his presidency.

Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, became known as the “comforter-in-chief” for his role in consoling victims of mass shootings and terror attacks. But the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey marks the first large-scale national tragedy under Trump’s watch.

The White House said Trump will first travel to Houston to meet with flood survivors and volunteers who assisted in relief efforts and then will move on to Lake Charles, Louisiana, another area hammered by the storm.

Trump first visited the region on Tuesday, but stayed clear of the disaster zone, saying he did not want to hamper rescue efforts. Instead, he met with cabinet members, state and local leaders, and first responders.

He was criticised, however, for not meeting with victims of the worst storm to hit Texas in 50 years, and for largely focusing on the logistics of the government response rather than the suffering of residents.

“That was reasonable criticism,” said Matt Mackowiak, chairman of the Republican Party in Travis County, Texas, who has praised the Trump administration’s handling of the disaster.

It’s useful for the president of the United States to have an emotional connection with the country
Matt Mackowiak, Republican Party official

More than 1 million people have been displaced by Harvey and up to 50 are feared dead in flooding that paralysed Houston and swelled river levels to record highs.

Saturday’s trip gives Trump a second chance, one Mackowiak said he should take full advantage of.

“It’s useful for the president of the United States to have an emotional connection with the country,” he said, adding that it could be “valuable for the half of the country that opposes him right now.”

According to the Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll, almost 59 per cent of the public disapproves of Trump’s performance as president.

While Obama shed tears after the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut that left 20 children dead, Trump has rarely displayed emotion other than anger at his critics and the news media.

One exception was the chemical attack in April by Syria’s government that killed more than 70 people, many of them children.

“When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal,” Trump said at a press conference after the attack. “That crosses many, many lines.”

As a presidential candidate, Trump was lauded by the families of people killed by undocumented immigrants, who said he personally expressed his sympathy for their loss.

But he was widely rebuked for his response to last month’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia when he appeared to be more interested in apportioning blame and feuding with his detractors than soothing the nerves of a rattled nation.

Trump of course first made his name as a real-estate mogul in Manhattan, branding himself as an expert in negotiation, and then cemented that image with his popular reality TV show, in which he coldly fired contestants unable to measure up.

As a presidential candidate, he frequently exhorted the value of “toughness” and praised business executives who were “killers”.

“My sense, based on his life and career, is that he’s not a publicly sympathetic or empathetic individual,” Mackowiak said.

US President Donald Trump speaks at the Texas Department of Public Safety Emergency Operations Centre in Austin, Texas. Photo: AFP

Tony Perkins, a pastor and president of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group, said there is a warmer side to Trump. Perkins accompanied Trump when, as a candidate, he visited with flood victims in rural Louisiana last year.

Trump, along with Vice-President Mike Pence, toured the devastation, handing out bottles of water and diapers.

Perkins said Trump would repeatedly order his caravan to stop so he could talk to survivors.

“I saw a very compassionate side to him ... He was visibly impacted by what he saw,” he said.

Gerard Landry, the mayor of Denham Springs, Louisiana, a city of 10,000 which saw almost 80 per cent of its buildings damaged by the flood, met with Trump at the town high school.

“He shook my hand, grabbed me by the shoulder,” Landry said. “He said, ‘Mr Mayor, your city is going to come back, and I know you’ll be fine. I know you can do this thing.’”

Landry had been expecting the boisterous Trump of his campaign rallies, but found him to be “totally different, down to earth”.

Saturday’s trip, Perkins said, affords Trump a moment to show the nation that side of him.

“It’s genuine,” Perkins said. “It’s real.”