WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is headed to hurricane-ravaged Florida on Wednesday with a pledge that federal, state and local governments will work as one to help rebuild homes, businesses and lives — putting politics on mute for now to focus on those in need.
Hurricane Ian has resulted in at least 84 people confirmed dead, including 75 in Florida, as hundreds of thousands of people wait for power to be restored. Ian’s 150 mph winds and punishing storm surge last week took out power for 2.6 million in Florida. Many people are unable to access food and water.
Biden planned to meet Wednesday with residents and small business owners in Fort Myers, Florida, and to thank government officials providing emergency aid and removing debris.
With the midterm elections just a month away, the crisis had the potential to bring together political rivals in common cause at least for a time.
Joining Biden in Florida will be two of his most prominent Republican critics: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Rick Scott, according to the White House and Scott’s spokesman. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre suggested Tuesday that it would be inappropriate for them to focus on political differences.
“There will be plenty of time, plenty of time, to discuss differences between the president and the governor — but now is not the time,” Jean-Pierre told reporters at a White House briefing. “When it comes to delivering and making sure that the people of Florida have what they need, especially after Hurricane Ian, we are one. We are working as one.”
Biden typically waits to visit the scene of a natural disaster, to ensure his presence and the fleet of vehicles that accompany him will not hinder the rescue efforts.
Before the storm hit, the president had intended to visit the Florida cities of Orlando and Fort Lauderdale last week, where he planned to stress his efforts to strengthen Social Security and Medicaid. Biden has accused Scott of wanting to end both programs by proposing that federal laws should expire every five years, although the Florida senator has said he wants to preserve the programs.
Biden and DeSantis have had a multitude of differences in recent years over how to fight COVID-19, immigration policy and more. In recent weeks, they tussled over the governor’s decision to put migrants on planes or buses to Democratic strongholds, a practice that Biden has called “reckless.”
The hurricane changed the purpose and tone of Biden’s first trip to Florida this year.
The president will be visiting an area especially devastated by winds and surging tides. Boats, including huge yachts, were thrown asunder, laying capsized inland far from their usual moorings.
As water receded, the destruction at Fort Myers’ Fisherman’s Wharf become evident. Homes and businesses lay in ruins, with windows shattered and the swirling tides from the surge turning the landscape into a wasteland of debris and muck.
The wharf lies on one side of the bridge that leads into Fort Myers Beach, which was brutalized by the Category 4 storm.
DeSantis confirmed Tuesday he’d be meeting with Biden in the hurricane zone and he praised the administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency for declaring an emergency before Ian made landfall.
“That was huge because everyone was full steam ahead. They knew they had the ability to do it,” DeSantis said. “We appreciate it. I think FEMA’s worked very well with the state and local.”
The White House message of bipartisan unity marks a difference from Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, who at times threatened to withhold aid to Democratic officials who criticized him, including Govs. Gavin Newsom of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York. At other times, Trump appeared insensitive or clumsy in his response to people’s suffering.
Trump threatened to withhold federal money from California after wildfires, saying its state officials were to blame for the deadly conflagrations, tweeting in 2018: “Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”
Politicians’ responses to natural disasters have the power to make or break political careers.
As Florida’s governor for eight years, Jeb Bush maintained a steady response to a parade of hurricanes and was rewarded with sky-high approval ratings. President George W. Bush and Louisiana lawmakers’ more troubled response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 still hangs over their legacies.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the Republican who welcomed President Barack Obama to his state to survey Hurricane Sandy damage just days before the 2012 general election, said that during natural disasters “the best political strategy is to have no political strategy, to do your job.”
Christie ended up the target of some in his own party who believed that his warm welcome for Obama helped cement the Democrat’s reelection, but he has no regrets.
“At core this is what government is there for, it’s to protect the safety and the welfare of the people,” Christie said in an interview Tuesday. “The only thing that should be on the president’s mind, on Gov. DeSantis’s mind, on (Sen.) Marco Rubio’s mind is the turmoil and the tragedy that’s happened to people’s lives and how we can make it better.”
Christie noted that the comparisons to Sandy aren’t exact — Biden is two years away from being a candidate himself, and DeSantis is weeks, not days, from facing voters in his reelection bid. But Christie said any attempts to score political points would be admonished at the polls.
“Playing games is not what this is about,” Christie said. “This is a pretty transparent time and people will get it — that’s not what they want, and they’ll punish you for it.”
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Seung Min Kim in Washington, Bobby Caina Calvan in Fort Myers, Florida and Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.
For more AP coverage of Hurricane Ian: apnews.com/hub/hurricanes