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A satellite image of Hurricane Harvey approaching the coast of Texas on Aug. 25, 2017. (NASA/NOAA) A satellite image of Hurricane Harvey approaching the coast of Texas on Aug. 25, 2017. (NASA/NOAA)

A satellite image of Hurricane Harvey approaching the coast of Texas on Aug. 25, 2017. (NASA/NOAA)

By W. Gardner Selby June 7, 2018

Donald Trump says people went out on their boats to watch Hurricane Harvey

President Donald Trump paused from extolling the Coast Guard for rescues accomplished when hurricanes battered the U.S. in 2017 to suggest that people had foolishly gotten in boats to watch Hurricane Harvey.

Did people do that?

We didn’t recall that happening and the next day, we failed to draw elaboration on Trump’s claim from the White House nor did other agencies respond with information showing that people took boats out to watch the powerful hurricane that swept ashore at Rockport, Texas before touching off days of heavy rain and flooding in Houston and southeast Texas.

According to a White House transcript, Trump said during a June 6, 2018 briefing involving FEMA and cabinet secretaries including Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, and Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development:

"I also want to recognize the Coast Guard, our other military services. I have to tell you, the Coast Guard saved 16,000 people.  What do you think of that, Ben? Sixteen-thousand people. (Applause.) And I think — you know, honestly, they don’t get enough credit in many ways.

"Mike made the commencement address this year at the Coast Guard Academy.  I did it the year before. I don’t think the Coast Guard gets enough credit.  And I’ve said it, and I even say it to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines. I said, I think this year the Coast Guard, maybe in terms of increased branding — the brand of the Coast Guard has been something incredible what’s happened. Saved 16,000 people, many of them in Texas, for whatever reason that is. People went out in their boats to watch the hurricane. That didn’t work out too well.  That didn’t work out too well."

The Houston Chronicle said in a news story posted later the same day that law enforcement "first responders" were baffled by Trump’s boating claim which, the story said, nobody could explain.

The story quoted Harris County’s sheriff, Ed Gonzalez, crediting civilians with making an "extraordinary effort" with their own boats to rescue neighbors, relatives and pets as Hurricane Harvey flooded the Texas coast with 52 inches of rain. "I didn't see anyone taking the approach that would reflect his comments," Gonzalez said.

Separately, Gov. Greg Abbott said he had "no information one way or another about" what Trump described and Coast Guard Petty Officer Edward Wargo told the Chronicle: "I don’t know how we would go about confirming that."

No confirmations

Our search of the Nexis news database turned up a September 2017 Tampa Bay Times news story on a man rescued from a Florida shrimping boat overtaken by Hurricane Irma yet no news accounts on people taking boats out to watch hurricanes.

We later connected with Chad Saylor, a spokesman for the Coast Guard at its Washington, D.C., headquarters.

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Saylor had no comment on the president’s boating claim, referring us to the White House, which offered no on-the-record response to our inquiry.

Saylor otherwise advised by email that the Coast Guard, teaming with multiple law agencies, rescued nearly 12,000 people during the nation’s 2017 hurricanes, mostly from rooftops in urban areas, Saylor said by phone.

Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, the Coast Guard’s commandant, said in a March 2018 speech that the agency responded to the year’s hurricanes by dispatching nearly 3,000 first responders and more than 200 helicopters, cutters, small boats and fixed-wing aircraft. Of its rescues, Zukunft said: "Most of those men, women, and children were rescued from the roofs and flooded streets of Houston, Beaumont, and Port Arthur, Texas… areas not generally accustomed to seeing Coast Guard helicopters circling overhead, dangling rescue swimmers into urban settings, as water engulfed their homes."

A Sept. 7, 2017, Coast Guard news release says that in response to Hurricane Harvey, Coast Guard members helped rescue 11,022 people and 1,384 pets.

Christopher Vaccaro, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also had no comment on Trump’s claim. Vaccaro suggested by email that we contact the Coast Guard and local law enforcement agencies.

We also reached Bill Read, a resident of League City, outside Houston, and a former director of the Miami-based National Hurricane Center.

By phone, Read commented that he was unaware of anyone ever going out on a boat to watch a hurricane.

"Absolutely not," Read said. "It’s dangerous." Read said it’d be "insane" to take a boat into the ocean to watch a hurricane because of tremendous storm-related currents and waves.

Inland in 2017, Read said, "the people I know who were out on boats were trying to rescue people" from Harvey-caused flooding.

Our ruling

Trump, saluting Coast Guard rescues accomplished when hurricanes battered the U.S., also said: "People went out in their boats to watch" Hurricane Harvey.

The White House didn’t provide nor did we find confirmation of people venturing out on boats to watch the hurricane. The boats we saw people using in Houston and elsewhere were to evacuate flooded homes and neighborhoods.

We rate this statement Pants on Fire.

PANTS ON FIRE – The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim. Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

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PolitiFact rating logo PolitiFact Rating:
Pants on Fire
Says that people "went out in their boats to watch" Hurricane Harvey.
Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Our Sources

Transcript, "Remarks by President Trump at 2018 Hurricane Briefing," The White House, June 6, 2018

News story, "Trump: Many Texans watched Harvey from their boats, requiring Coast Guard rescue," The Houston Chronicle, June 6, 2018

Phone interview and email, Chad Saylor, chief warrant officer, Coast Guard Media Relations, June 7, 2018

Speech as drafted), "THE STATE OF THE UNITED STATES COAST GUARD, 2018," Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, commandant, U.S. Coast Guard

Email, Christopher Vaccaro, senior media relations specialist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, June 7, 2018

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Donald Trump says people went out on their boats to watch Hurricane Harvey

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