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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In Florida, even a hurricane can’t sweep away presidential politics

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida during one of his four phone calls with President Biden this week. Both men seem to recognize the dangers of appearing to put politics ahead of human suffering in Florida.

By Michael D. Shear and Nicholas Nehemas

President Joe Biden offered his support and condolences to a Florida community hit hard by Hurricane Idalia after being snubbed by Ron DeSantis, the state’s Republican governor and a potential rival for the presidency.

Biden and Jill Biden, the first lady, took an aerial tour of Live Oak, a small town east of Tallahassee; received a briefing from federal and local emergency medical workers; and met with members of the community. In brief remarks, the president vowed that the federal government would support those affected for as long as it takes to recover.

“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “The federal government, we’re here to help.”

In normal times, the politics of disaster dictate that Biden would link arms with DeSantis in a bipartisan display of unity to show those who suffered — and potential voters across the country — that they care.

These are not normal times.

DeSantis did not greet Biden at the airport or join him for the briefing and tour of the damage, choosing instead to hand out donated Chick-fil-A meals to people in Horseshoe Beach, about 70 miles away.

At a news conference Friday, DeSantis said he had told Biden that it “would be very disruptive to have the whole kind of security apparatus” that comes along with a presidential visit. He said he had also relayed that “we want to make sure that the power restoration continues, that the relief efforts continue.”

There was little evidence in Live Oak that the president’s arrival was causing disruption. Local officials in the city said that power and communications were being restored quickly and that search and rescue operations had been completed by Saturday morning, before the president and his motorcade arrived.

The governor’s decision not to join the president came just hours after Biden confirmed to reporters that he would meet with DeSantis. White House officials responded by saying the president had told DeSantis he planned to visit before announcing it publicly — and that the governor had not expressed any concerns at that time.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters on Air Force One on Saturday that the White House and the governor’s team had agreed on the location for the visit earlier in the week, and that DeSantis’ aides had not raised any security or operational objections.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who often clashes with Biden, did join the president Saturday, praising him for taking swift action even before the storm made landfall.

“The president did a great job with the early declaration” of a natural disaster, Scott said. He called it a “big deal” that Biden and FEMA had moved so quickly to help the area. “These are not rich communities,” he said. “Many of them struggle.”

About 6,850 people live in Live Oak, the seat of Suwannee County, and more than one-quarter of the residents live in poverty, according to census data. Forty-two percent of the population identifies as Black, 42% as white and 8% as Hispanic. Donald Trump won 78% of the county’s vote in 2020.

“The spirit of this community is remarkable,” Biden said after touring one neighborhood with many downed trees. “When people are in real trouble, the most important thing you can give them is hope. There’s no hope like your neighbor walking across the street and see what they can do for you.”

At the Suwannee Riverside Elementary School, near where Biden received his briefing, members of the National Guard were handing out water and other basic supplies to a long line of cars. Across the street at the local high school, dozens of mobile disaster units had been set up to provide sleeping quarters for rescue workers.

Biden shrugged off the governor’s decision not to meet with him.

“He may have had other reasons, but he did help us plan this,” the president said. “He sat with FEMA and decided where we should go.”

But Saturday underscored the tensions between the two politicians, whose campaigns have been lashing out at each other for months. A recent Biden for President email called DeSantis a politician who oversees an “inflation hot spot” and supports an “extreme MAGA blueprint to undermine democracy.” At the Republican debate last month, DeSantis said the country was in decline under Biden and accused Biden of staying “on the beach” while the people of Maui suffered devastating fires.

The stakes are high for both men. Biden has struggled with mediocre approval ratings and arrives in Florida following criticism that his initial response to reporters on the Maui wildfires was a lackluster “no comment.” DeSantis has seen his polling numbers plummet as his onetime benefactor, Trump, has become a fierce rival, attacking at every turn.

Jason Pizzo, a Democratic state senator from South Florida, said DeSantis’ decision smelled like politics, saying that “campaign strategy has replaced civility and decorum.”

This past week, before Biden announced his trip, DeSantis suggested that it was important to put politics aside in the interests of his state.

“That has got to triumph over any type of short-term political calculation or any type of positioning,” he said.

White House officials appeared to take his comments at face value. On Thursday, Liz Sherwood-Randall, the president’s top homeland security adviser, told reporters that Biden and DeSantis “are very collegial when we have the work to do together of helping Americans in need, citizens of Florida in need.”

But 24 hours later, that collegiality faded.

A joint visit Saturday would have been their first joint event together since DeSantis officially announced he was running for president. Biden and the governor met in the aftermath of the collapse of a condominium building in June 2021 and after Hurricane Ian last year.

After Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida on Sept. 28, Biden waited seven days before visiting Florida on Oct. 5. Hurricane Idalia made landfall in Florida on Wednesday.

Hurricane Idalia, which hit Florida as a Category 3 storm, forced DeSantis off the campaign trail. But it also allowed him an opportunity to project strength, which he has not always done as a presidential candidate. DeSantis launched his candidacy with a disastrously glitchy event on Twitter. He has at times struggled to take on Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, and has repeatedly rebooted his campaign amid a fundraising shortfall, layoffs and a shake-up of his senior staff.

Facing the powerful hurricane, however, the governor sprang into action, as many Florida governors have done in the past.

He blanketed local and national airwaves with hurricane briefings, telling residents in the storm’s path that they needed to evacuate. His official schedule showed that he started his workdays at 4 a.m. And early surveys after the storm had passed showed that the damage was not as severe as originally feared, even though many homes and businesses were flooded and the area’s cherished fishing industry may be in long-term peril.

Biden’s administration also moved quickly to confront the storm. Officials said that by Friday there were 1,500 federal personnel in Florida dealing with the storm, along with 540 Urban Search and Rescue personnel and three disaster survivor assistance teams.

FEMA made available more than 1.3 million meals and 1.6 million liters of water, officials said. Other efforts were underway by more than a half-dozen other federal agencies.

So far, state officials have confirmed only one death as being storm-related as of Friday. Power had been restored to many homes. Roads and bridges were being reopened.

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