Cheering For. . . The Hurricane?
All of Florida’s state and local officials, FEMA and others deserve credit for response to Hurricane Ira. Why, then, is it being politicized?
If anything should be exempt from politics, it is our response to natural disasters.
After all, they don’t discriminate. Hurricanes and tornadoes come to mind. They painfully remind us of the dark side of nature’s awesome power. Growing up in Oklahoma - tornado alley - I’ve seen enough evidence and reminders of their destruction.
So when an inevitable hurricane, typhoon, blizzard, or tornado hits a highly populated area, people rally. Or should, without regard to politics or anything else.
I saw it during Hurricane Sandy’s arrival on the shores of New Jersey in October 2012. GOP Governor Chris Christie and President Barack Obama and their administrations worked as seamlessly as possible to prepare and rescue people and recover from the extensive property damage and loss of life. A decade later, work is still being done.
I then worked for a New Jersey-based food company, and my industry was considered “critical infrastructure” after the storm as the New Jersey Food Council, on whose board I sat, was mobilized. As a former chair of the Canadian American Business Council, I remember a call from a friend and fellow lobbyist for a Canadian natural gas company, which had a dozen crews ready to dispatch to the Jersey shore to cap broken gas lines. One problem - US and Canadian laws differed, and Canadians weren’t “licensed” to operate in the US and needed a waiver to cross the border. A quick call to my friend and US Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, took care of that issue within a few hours. A waiver was granted. Canadian trucks arrived hours later.
You remember what was happening that October in 2012. A national election, with President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney leading their respective tickets. If anything were going to be political, it would be the response to Sandy. Christie’s and Obama's seamless cooperation seemed to minimize it, but the event arguably “froze” the political environment to Obama’s advantage in the final stretch. Christie’s ubiquitous photos with Obama on the Jersey shore, surveying damage, hugs and all, are still the subject of grumbling by a few partisans on the right. In fairness, Romney’s campaign was largely undone by other issues and his own campaign.
A year later, it was smooth sailing to reelection and a second term as Governor for Christie.
And that is but one very small example of how things work and the cooperation and partnership between governments at all levels, the private sector, and cooperative colleagues in nearby states.
Since Hurricane Katrina devastated the greater New Orleans area in 2005, natural disasters have been increasingly politicized, along with everything else.
“Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”
President Bush’s effusive praise of then-FEMA Director Michael Brown’s response to Katrina belied the horrific photos of floating bodies around the city’s heavily flooded (and mostly below sea water) ninth ward as the city’s levees and pumps completely failed. Additional scenes of unfettered looting emerged.
Incompetence by Democratic governor Kathleen Blanco and “Chocolate City” Mayor Ray Nagin and his diversion of funds designed to improve the levees were more responsible for any mismanagement and largely overlooked by the media. Bush’s presidency never recovered as 1,833 perished from the storm, even as Nagin eventually went to jail for his corruption and malfeasance.
Chicagoans of a certain age will remember the devastating winter storms of early January 1979. The Chicago Tribune tells the story:
“Life -- streets, mass transit, work, schools, garbage pickup -- didn't return to some semblance of normality until late January. But consider, as big as the big blizzard was, it accounted for just a fifth of the snow to fall that winter, which stands now as the snowiest on record with a staggering 89.7 inches. Buried under that 7 1/2 feet of snow were Bilandic's hopes of keeping his job. On Feb. 28, the Tribune reported on another flurry: "An avalanche of snow protest votes carried Jane Byrne to the most stunning political upset in Chicago history late Tuesday as the second biggest primary election turnout in 40 years crushed the legendary Democratic political machine and ended Michael Bilandic's two-year reign in City Hall.”
This brings us to Hurricane Ian, the devastating Category 4 storm (just like Katrina). The stench of politics arrived before the storm. As Issues & Insights editorialized:
The day after Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida, President Joe Biden issued his forecast: “This could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history.” Was he hoping it would be? Or is he just ignorant of the history of hurricanes?
“The numbers are still unclear,” Biden said, “but we’re hearing early reports of what could be substantial loss of life.”
So far, the death toll in Florida from Ian is a little more than 30. That number will no doubt rise, but it is far short of the deadliest, and might be one of the least deadly hurricanes to hit that hurricane-prone state.
The deadliest record was set in 1928, when the San Felipe-Okeechobee Hurricane landed near Palm Beach and some 2,500 people died, most of them from a 6-to 9-foot surge the hurricane caused in Lake Okeechobee. There were also hurricanes in the 1600s and 1700s that are believed to have killed more than 1,000 people in Florida.
The Labor Day Hurricane that hit the Florida Keys in 1935 with sustained wind speeds of 185 mph killed more than 400.
Keep in mind that those deaths came when Florida’s population was a fraction of what it is today. (This Wikipedia page has a list of the deadliest hurricanes in Florida.)
So, no. Ian won’t be the “deadliest” in Florida’s history. And if Biden had any understanding of history, he’d have known that it wouldn’t be.
Worse, President Biden didn’t begin the federal coordination by first calling the state’s GOP Governor, Ron DeSantis. He reached out to others first, saving his last call to DeSantis even though the Governor used that phone call to thank Biden for the federal response.
I was going to chronicle what seems to be another seamless and extremely effective response to a deadly hurricane, but Spectator USA beat me to it. Emphasis added:
“Floridians’ lives are in danger,” tweeted Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s rapid response director Christina Pushaw as Hurricane Ian bore down, “so of course CNN is rooting for the hurricane.”
Pushaw was responding to CNN reporter Edward-Isaac Dovere, who had earlier admonished DeSantis for having “put himself at odds with many local government officials” and “looking for fights with a president he may end up running against.” The governor was “playing politics,” suggested Dovere’s colleague Steve Contore, who covers Florida politics for CNN, surmising that “he is urging residents to heed advice from the same local leaders” whom DeSantis supposedly said to “ignore during COVID.”
Since DeSantis came to office, he has diligently followed state directives to streamline and improve the effectiveness of hurricane responses that were put in place after Hurricane Irma devastated parts of Florida in 2017. In the week before Ian made landfall, the governor placed all of Florida under a state of emergency. He also mobilized 7,000 National Guard troops from Florida and other states, and readied 28,000 linemen to restore expected power outages. When the hurricane increased in strength to a near-Category 5 storm, DeSantis mobilized an additional 14,000 linemen and delegated evacuation protocols to local authorities in at-risk areas.
When Ian arrived last Wednesday, DeSantis immediately did what any state governor should do: he placed calls to President Joe Biden and the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA). He was active on the ground meeting with local officials and, dare one say, acting positively presidential as he focused on the storm rather than his political fortunes. Biden, who did not initially accept DeSantis’s call, did eventually talk to him, and DeSantis publicly thanked him for extending federal disaster relief. The president will not visit Florida until October 5, however, a week after Ian impacted the state. Nevertheless, more than two thirds of power outages were restored within 72 hours. Some 70 people, mostly those who failed to evacuate, were killed. This is a tragic figure, but far fewer than the “hundreds” eagerly predicted by hostile media as the storm came through.
Yet it wasn’t just CNN that had set its sights on the Florida governor. Two weeks after dismissing DeSantis as a “stuntman” over his airlift of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Politico’s Jack Shafer offered mock praise for the governor. Shafer sneered that DeSantis was now acting like a “normal politician” instead of an “excitable boy,” “red-toothed biter,” “political opportunist,” and “loon.” Shafer dismissed actions that have saved thousands of lives and eased the suffering of millions as merely “the latest example of [DeSantis’s] opportunism,” “a hurdle to clear on his way to reelection,” and “a tryout for the White House, a position he so clearly lusts for.” The savvy Beltway reader, he intoned, should realize that this “temporary adjustment” will “return to culture warfare once Ian’s waters recede.”
Shafer must be a lot of fun at parties. Elsewhere, Joy Behar, a paranoid hysteric who claims to be a comedian and co-hosts ABC’s wine mom-centric The View, claimed that DeSantis bears personal responsibility for the hurricane because of his skepticism of climate change. Perhaps it wouldn’t have happened if he’d recycled more. Behar further supposed that DeSantis is a hypocrite for accepting federal disaster assistance, lazily equating public funds for emergencies with the socialism she presumably favors but that DeSantis opposes. As usual, her harping in a time of crisis was tasteless and mean-spirited, but no one could call it funny.
Another joyless Joy, namely Joy Reid of MSNBC, tried to “own” DeSantis by comparing Floridians evacuating storm areas to illegal immigrants. It is “a bit ironic,” she said of the prospect of law-abiding evacuees, “having to pour over the borders and go north…in the exact same crisis we have been talking about on a trolling level in that state.” In fact, most hurricane evacuees remained within the state, for Ian’s path blocked egress to the north while Florida’s east coast was only mildly affected. A week earlier, and with equally little mirth, Reid compared DeSantis’s deprioritization of masking in schools to violent attempts to preserve segregation in the Jim Crow South. MSNBC’s ratings, it should come as no surprise, are even lower than CNN’s.
If anyone has botched a hurricane response, it is DeSantis’s opponents. Yet even his Democrat gubernatorial opponent, Charlie Crist, in a rare display of political acumen, has remained conspicuously neutral in his public comments.
President Biden kept the ball of partisan pettiness rolling when he failed to call DeSantis in advance of the storm, which is standard protocol when a hurricane strikes. Instead, Biden telephoned the mayors of Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater, Florida, before discussing state-level needs with DeSantis, whom he has called a “semi-fascist” and presumably considers a threat to democracy due to his support for former President Donald Trump. Biden gaffed further when he called Coast Guard rescue swimmer Zach Loesch to thank him for his “heroic work,” only for it to be revealed that Loesch is soon due to be kicked out of the service at Biden’s orders because he is unvaccinated.
In a characteristically awkward speech, Vice President Kamala Harris stated that federal aid distribution would be guided by principles of “equity,” meaning that “communities of color” would receive preferential treatment over white hurricane victims. Pushaw corrected her, observing that FEMA resources were already available on a non-discriminatory basis to all.
As Florida faced the morning after Ian on September 30, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi obliquely criticized DeSantis’s Martha’s Vineyard airlift of illegal immigrants by suggesting that Florida farmers “need them to pick crops down here.” She may have had a point about Biden-induced labor shortages, but in our charged racial climate, her “pick crops” line came off horribly.
None of this has stopped partisans and the media (but I repeat myself) from finding ways to attack DeSantis over his hurricane preparedness and response. His Democratic gubernatorial opponent, former Republican Governor and now Democratic Congressman Charlie Crist, could only point to the property tax “crisis” in the state. DeSantis signed property tax reform and condominium safety legislation last May, but that was focused on curbing sky-high rates in the Sunshine State and responding to the 2021 tragic collapse of a condominium in Surfside. Perhaps there is an issue. DeSantis and the legislature hopefully will respond wisely. But politically, is that the best they got? Really?
He was also attacked for defending the Sheriff of Lee County (where Ian did much of her damage - dare I say her?) for the timing of an evacuation order. Oh, FEMA also defended Lee County, so there’s that.
And DeSantis is being criticized for deterring looters by reminding them that Florida is a “Second Amendment state.” I’ve yet to see any video of looters running wild, ala New Orleans after Katrina. “Florida man” is not to be messed with, it seems.
While 1.9 million Floridians lost power during the storm, its already been restored to two-thirds (about 1.2 million) in just a few days. Some 620,000 remain without power at this writing. That’s remarkable. While Katrina killed 1,833 people, as of this writing, around 70 have tragically lost their lives, most from drowning. The death toll may go up, especially after Ian finishes her (there I go again) damage in the Carolinas, Virginia, and perhaps elsewhere.
Count me among those with high praise for Gov. DeSantis, Florida Power & Light (FP&L), cooperative governors and power companies in other states, local officials, and the resilient people of Florida, who are no strangers to hurricanes. Before Katrina, Florida was hit by four hurricanes in the election year of 2004. Politico reports that FP&L’s investments in concrete and steel utility pole and underground wiring contributed to recovery efforts from Hurricane Ian.
As for Biden and Harris - who spoke of unconstitutionally prioritizing aid based on race - I’ll applaud them, despite their politicized response, for at least not getting in FEMA’s way.
While we should always hold our elected officials accountable for their leadership and management, it’s time to end our natural disasters' mindless and automatic politicization. Starting at the White House.
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