One week after Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida, President Joe Biden is visiting the area Wednesday to assess recovery and talk to families.
Ian, one of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit the U.S., also is expected to be one of the costliest.
Public officials’ handling of major disasters can be legacy-defining moments, which could have extra importance in the politically important state of Florida. That’s true for both Biden and for Gov. Ron DeSantis, a frequent critic of the president who is up for reelection this year and could face off against Biden in 2024.
Biden has said his political disagreements with DeSantis are irrelevant to his administration's response and has offered the governor “the fullest federal support.”
DeSantis has put aside his challenges to Biden on immigration and other issues to work closely with Washington.
DeSantis joined Biden on Wednesday to update the president and review hurricane recovery.
“We are working as one,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday.
Cracks in the united front?
The mutual admiration society of President Joe Biden and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis showed a few cracks Wednesday as the political rivals discussed how well they’ve worked together on recovery efforts from Hurricane Ian.
Sure, DeSantis praised the “team effort” between the administration and state and local officials. Yes, Biden said he's been "in complete lockstep" with the Florida governor.
But DeSantis also seemed to take a dig at Biden’s aerial tour, before the briefing of storm-damaged areas.
“I was in Sanibel today,” DeSantis said near the start of his public remarks. “You can go over it in a helicopter and you see damage, but it does not do it justice until you are actually on the ground and you see concrete utility poles sawed off, right in half, massive power lines everywhere, massive amounts of debris.”
When it was Biden’s turn to speak, he said he’s sure that the damage looks a lot worse on the ground.
“But you can see a whole hell of a lot of the damage from the air,” Biden added.
- Maureen Groppe and Michael Collins
DeSantis praises federal role in hurricane recovery
Gov. Ron DeSantis thanked President Joe Biden for traveling to Florida to survey the hurricane damage and praised the “good coordination” between his administration and the White House.
“We appreciate working together across various levels of government,” DeSantis said with Biden and other officials standing by his side.
DeSantis particularly praised the administration’s doubling from 30 days to 60 days the amount of time the federal government will pay for 100% of debris removal and other costs. For some communities, the governor said, the cost of debris removal would eclipse their entire budgets.
Biden said DeSantis probably will need to ask for an additional extension.
“Unless you clear the area,” Biden said, “there’s not much else you can do.”
Biden, who took an aerial tour of the hurricane damage and got a briefing on the recovery efforts, said he has instructed his administration to bring together “every element” of the federal government to help with immediate needs and long-term rebuilding.
“Today, we have one job and only one job, and that's to make sure that people in Florida get everything that they need to fully, thoroughly recover,” he said.
After Biden finished his remarks, reporters asked how he thought DeSantis has handled the hurricane response.
“I think he’s done a good job,” Biden said. “We have very different political philosophies, but we’ve worked hand in glove. … In dealing with this crisis, we’ve been in complete lockstep."
– Michael Collins and Maureen Groppe
Biden gets aerial tour of hurricane damage
President Joe Biden helicoptered over parts of hurricane-battered Florida on Wednesday, shortly after arriving in Fort Myers.
Cecil Pendergrass, chairman of the Lee County Commission, joined Biden on the aerial assessment, which lasted about half an hour.
Next up is a briefing by federal, state and local officials at debris-covered Fisherman’s Wharf followed by a meeting with small-business owners and local residents.
Biden is expected to speak after 3 p.m. about what he’s seen and heard.
– Maureen Groppe
IRS helping FEMA’s jammed phone lines
Thousands of phone operators – including some from the IRS – have been helping field calls from FEMA’s jammed lines, according to the agency.
More help may be coming.
“We’re going to try to speed that up by having additional personnel,” President Joe Biden said Wednesday.
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said IRS operators are one of the backups used during the early days of a disaster.
If a caller still can’t get through, they can ask for a callback, or, if they have internet access, reach out through disasterassistance.gov, she said.
– Maureen Groppe
FEMA has activated hotel program for temporary housing
At DeSantis’ request, the federal government has turned on a program offering temporary housing for those in need after federal disasters. That means eligible Floridians can stay in participating hotels, said FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell.
FEMA will also be working with the state to activate the federal direct housing program, which includes bringing in mobile homes for temporary shelter.
For homes needing roof repairs, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is providing blue coverings with fiber-reinforced sheeting to help reduce further damage to property until permanent repairs can be made.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has been tasked with planning permanent housing solutions, Criswell said.
“This is going to be a very complicated recovery process for long-term housing and permanent housing for many families. There are communities that have to be completely rebuilt,” she said. “So our role is to provide that temporary housing for families as they're working through what we can do to support their permanent rebuilding.”
– Maureen Groppe
More disaster recovery centers are coming
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will open three Disaster Recovery Centers in Florida on Thursday, two days after the state’s first center began helping residents in Lee County, Criswell announced. Services will be provided by more than 10 federal and state agencies and nonprofit organizations.
The first center, at Lakes Regional Library in Fort Myers, was opened in coordination with insurance companies so residents could talk to their insurance provider while checking if they’re eligible for federal assistance, including a small-business loan.
Criswell said FEMA will continue to open centers around parts of the state hit by Ian.
– Maureen Groppe
First responders welcome Biden to Fort Myers
Firefighters from Cape Coral and other first responders were among those waiting for President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden after Air Force One landed in Fort Myers Wednesday.
The greeters did not include DeSantis and the state’s U.S. senators, all Republicans. But all three are expected to join the president later in his visit. The elected officials who met Biden included U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., whose district includes Fort Myers.
Cecil Pendergrass, chairman of the Lee County Commission, was also on hand to welcome Biden.
– Maureen Groppe
Search and rescue teams still going door-to-door in Lee County
Seventeen search and rescue teams continue to work in Lee County, which includes Fort Myers and has had the most deaths attributed to Hurricane Ian confirmed by Florida’s medical examiners.
Teams are moving door-to-door to make sure all residents are accounted for, according to Criswell. On Tuesday, they assessed 24,000 structures.
“They're going to continue to be in the county until every structure has been looked at and cleared to make sure nobody still needs rescue,” she said.
– Maureen Groppe
FEMA: Federal aid for Florida will cost billions
Federal assistance to Florida will cost billions of dollars, Criswell told reporters Wednesday.
Damage to infrastructure is still being assessed as the federal government remains in the “lifesaving and stabilization mode,” Criswell said during the flight from Washington to Florida, where Biden will be getting an update on hurricane recovery efforts.
“It's going to be in the billions. How many billions I don't know yet,” she said. “But it will certainly be in the billions and perhaps one of the more costly disasters that we've seen in many years.”
– Maureen Groppe
The latest on death toll, power, more
The death toll – which county medical examiners said Tuesday night stands at 72 – is expected to rise as rescue and recovery efforts continue in areas battered by the Category 4 storm and the flooding it spawned.
The deployment of what the administration called an unprecedented number of search and rescue teams have rescued more than 3,800 people and 200 pets, according to the White House.
More than 340,000 homes and businesses remained without power as of Tuesday evening, according to the tracking website PowerOutage.
The federal disaster declaration includes 17 counties, making them eligible for various forms of federal assistance.
More than 4,000 federal response personnel are working in Florida and the Southeast.
On Wednesday, Biden extended for another 30 days the time period for which the federal government will cover 100% of the cost of debris removal and emergency protective measures.
What's about to happen
Biden is traveling to Fort Myers where he is scheduled to survey storm-ravaged areas by helicopter before meeting with small business owners and local residents and thanking responders for their efforts.
In addition to hearing from DeSantis, Biden will receive updates from Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell, as well as state and local officials.
“They’re going to talk about what else are the needs in Florida to get to a place of recovery, to get to a place of rebuilding,” Jean-Pierre said.
Biden's trip comes two days after he made a similar visit to Puerto Rico, where he promised to rebuild the island stronger than it was before Hurricane Fiona.
Hurricanes can damage not just property, but also political reputations.
After leaving office, former President George W. Bush acknowledged his response to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina tarnished his legacy. A photo of Bush looking down from Air Force One on a flooded New Orleans as he was returning to Washington from a Texas vacation made him look, in his words, “detached and uncaring.”
Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles’ approval rating dropped precipitously after the state’s botched response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Successful disaster management can also be a political boost. In fact, some fellow Republicans blamed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for helping President Barack Obama win reelection by praising Obama’s response to Superstorm Sandy.
Biden and DeSantis
Biden and DeSantis, who may face each other on the 2024 presidential battlefield, have a combative history.
In a trip scrapped as Ian approached, Biden had planned to appear last week with Charlie Crist, the Democratic congressman challenging DeSantis for reelection in November. Last month, DeSantis – a frequent critic of Biden’s handling of border policies – flew planes of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.
Biden and DeSantis have also clashed on pandemic policies, abortion rights, LGBTQ issues, inflation and other matters.
But the leaders have already shown they can work together during a disaster. After a 12-story condo building collapsed in Surfside near Miami last year, DeSantis praised the federal government for its quick response. Biden said it was important to show the nation that “we can cooperate.”
What they are saying
“I just want the people in Florida to know we see what you’re going through and we’re with you, and we’re going to do everything we can for you,” Biden said Friday.
“There will be plenty of time to discuss differences between the president and the governor. But now is not the time," Jean-Pierre said Tuesday of the political clashes between Biden and DeSantis.
“FEMA has been a great partner. The Biden administration has responded, as they have said, so there’s no complaints there,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said on CNN Sunday. “In times like this, people realize that it’s not about politics.”
"This is going to be a very long recovery, and it's going to be a complicated one," Criswell said on NPR Saturday.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden, DeSantis meet to assess Hurricane Ian recovery: recap