- Hurricane Ian is forecasted to strike Florida’s Gulf Coast on Wednesday.
- Governors usually work directly with the White House during disasters, relying on the government for federal resources.
- Here’s a look at how the last three presidents handled disaster relief efforts and how Biden could address this crisis with DeSantis.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been one of President Joe Biden’s loudest critics. He’s attacked Biden’s pandemic strategy, his immigration policy, and encouraged congressional Republicans to go after his administration if they take the US House in November’s midterms.
But as Hurricane Ian gains strength to strike Florida’s Gulf Coast, DeSantis may need to put politics on pause as he leans on the federal government for disaster support.
DeSantis has rejected federal aid before: In 2021, The Associated Press reported the governor vetoed funding from the American Rescue Plan, which included $1 billion for an Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund. The governor claimed the funding had strings attached — such as parts of it only being accessible through grants — that made it unusable, per the outlet.
Ian — which could become a Category 4 storm — will be DeSantis’ first major hurricane as governor, just six weeks before Election Day.
Earlier Tuesday, Biden called the mayors of Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater, Florida, to discuss preparations for Ian including evacuation efforts — but not DeSantis.
However, on Tuesday evening, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tweeted that Biden and DeSantis had spoken to discuss steps the federal government is taking to help Florida. “The President and the Governor committed to continued close coordination,” she said.
During emergencies, The White House can engage the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the agency responsible for preparing and recovering from the impacts of natural disasters.
It can also invoke The Stafford Act, which allows a state governor to authorize the use of the military for disaster relief operations. The act authorizes the president to make federal aid available to states undergoing a natural or man-made disaster.
Here’s how the last three presidents worked with governors in their disaster relief efforts.
George W. Bush and Kathleen Babineaux Blanco
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Louisiana, claiming at least 1,800 lives, displacing nearly one million people, and causing property damage that totaled over $125 billion. More than 20,000 residents took shelter in the Superdome, the city’s NFL stadium, where they were stranded for weeks.
Days after Katrina hit, Michael D. Brown, the head of FEMA, admitted on live television that his agency had just learned of the thousands of people at the Superdome without food or water.
In the days that followed, the Bush administration drew intense criticism for its slow response.
Instead of being on the ground to support the relief effort, then-President George W. Bush chose to fly over the region on Air Force One. “It’s devastating,” he said as he looked down, according to The Washington Post. “It’s got to be doubly devastating on the ground.”
New Orleans Democratic Mayor Ray Nagin blasted the White House, saying: “They flew down here one time two days after the doggone event was over with TV cameras, AP reporters, all kind of goddamn — excuse my French everybody in America, but I am pissed,” he said.
Democratic Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said the state’s despair was made worse by a Republican-led White House eager to blame someone else for its failed disaster response: “I just thought I could shout more loudly than the noise around me, but in the end I couldn’t. There was just too much pain,” she said.
Barack Obama and Chris Christie
Former President Barack Obama’s response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was swift. The day before the storm hit New Jersey, Obama signed emergency declarations for Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.
The declarations allowed FEMA to transfer resources directly to state, local, and tribal organizations to make preparations in advance of the storm. More than $1.2 billion was dedicated to housing assistance, including costs for temporary housing, and repairing damaged property.
The hurricane killed 285 people and caused $70 billion in damage. During a visit to the coast to assess the destruction, Obama and New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie formed an unlikely bond.
Photos from that day show the two side-by-side. Christie said, “I want to thank the president for coming here today. It’s really important to have the president of the United States acknowledge all the suffering that’s going on here in New Jersey and I appreciate it very much.”
The New York Times reported Christie’s praise of Obama didn’t sit well with Republican leaders who were offended at how closely he worked with the president.
According to a White House pool report, Obama told survivors at a shelter in Brigantine, “I want to just let you know that your governor is working overtime to make sure that as soon as possible everybody can get back to normal.”
Donald Trump and Carmen Yulín Cruz
In 2017, three major hurricanes occurred over the span of two months during former President Donald Trump’s tenure: Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Hurricane Irma in Florida, and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
Harvey was one of the costliest disasters in the US and one of the first serious crises of his presidency. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa called out Trump on Twitter to “keep on top of” the hurricane and warned him not to “make the same mistake President Bush made with Katrina.”
Questions were raised as to whether Trump would handle the situation appropriately, given he had “zero disaster-response experience,” according to Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican strategist.
While Trump received flak for downplaying how climate change contributed to the intensity of Harvey and Irma, it was nothing compared to the criticism he earned for how his White House handled Hurricane Maria.
The White House made few preparations in the days leading up to the storm, and it took weeks before FEMA committed its full resources to the island.
He also tossed paper towels to crowds of survivors during a visit to the territory.
Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz of San Juan, Puerto Rico, who led her city’s response during Maria, blasted Trump’s claim, saying: “The president keeps adding insult to injury and I think his words are despicable. They really do not have any connection with reality.”
During Hurricane Dorian in 2019, Trump altered a map from the National Hurricane Center to support his false claim that Alabama was in the path of Dorian. The incident was referred to as Sharpiegate and the Category 5 storm ravaged the Bahamas instead.
Joe Biden and Ron DeSantis
President Joe Biden has already had to deal with a number of hurricanes such as Hurricanes Ida and Nicholas in 2021, far but appears to be taking the necessary steps to actively prepare for the impending damage of Ian.
On Sept, 18, Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico, causing an island-wide blackout and mass flooding. Biden declared a state of emergency as the storm approached, ordering federal assistance to supplement disaster response efforts.
As of Monday, an estimated 746,000 homes and businesses were still without power, according to Reuters. The White House has provided additional support, approving 100% retroactive federal funding to cover debris removal, emergency protective measures, and direct federal assistance for 30 days.
As Hurricane Ian inches toward Florida, FEMA announced federal emergency aid would be made available to supplement the state, tribal, and local response efforts.