Science & Nature

In Hurricane Ian’s wake, federal and state leaders ramp up relief

In Hurricane Ian’s wake, federal and state leaders ramp up relief thumbnail

Reconstruction of areas devastated by Hurricane Ian will be a lengthy, difficult, and expensive job – and a test of leadership at all levels of American government, from the White House to statehouses and county seats.

Hurricane relief is a task that can define top officials’ tenures. In 2005 halting responses to Hurricane Katrina put President George W. Bush, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin under intense scrutiny. In 2012, a hands-on approach to recovery from Superstorm Sandy made New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie the most popular Republican in the country, for a time.

Why We Wrote This

Overseeing relief efforts after a natural disaster can become a tenure-defining moment for public officials – partly because at these moments people need help, not mere words.

In part, that response is because people at times like this are looking for effective action, not partisan point-scoring.

“People right now are scared. … People have lost everything,” says Jared Moskowitz, former director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management. “You want to instill confidence. Even though they can’t see it now, they’ll build back and will be more resilient.”

After moving across Florida, the storm made landfall again on Friday on the coast of South Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane. It leaves behind a massive trail of destruction, with more than 2 million lacking electricity, hundreds of thousands displaced, and an estimated tens of thousands having lost their homes. An unknown number have lost lives.

“This is not just a crisis for Florida. This is an American crisis,” said President Joe Biden.

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Reconstruction of areas devastated by Hurricane Ian will be a lengthy, difficult, and expensive job – and a test of leadership at all levels of American government, from the White House to statehouses and county seats.

Hurricane relief is a task that can define top officials’ tenures. In 2005 halting responses to Hurricane Katrina put President George W. Bush, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin under intense scrutiny. In 2012, a hands-on approach to recovery from Superstorm Sandy made New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie the most popular Republican in the country, for a time.

In part, that response is because people need help, not words, following natural disasters. They are looking for effective action, not partisan point-scoring.

Why We Wrote This

Overseeing relief efforts after a natural disaster can become a tenure-defining moment for public officials – partly because at these moments people need help, not mere words.

“People right now are scared. … People have lost everything,” says Jared Moskowitz, former director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management. “You want to instill confidence. Even though they can’t see it now, they’ll build back and will be more resilient.”

“Herculean effort”

After moving across Florida, the storm made landfall again on Friday on the coast of South Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane. It leaves behind a massive trail of destruction, with more than 2 million lacking electricity, hundreds of thousands displaced, and an estimated tens of thousands having lost their homes. An unknown number have lost lives.

A firefighter examines a large tree across a road as the effects from Hurricane Ian are felt, Sept. 30, 2022, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Video of the hardest-hit Florida areas, around Fort Myers Beach, Cape Coral, and Sanibel and Captiva islands, showed boats strewn about coastal roads, flipped mobile homes, and piles of wooden sticks that were once buildings. 

The causeway out to Sanibel Island was shattered by storm surge and impassable. Remaining island residents were evacuated Friday by helicopter.

Rescue crews on the mainland boated and waded down flooded streets to reach survivors. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday that in the hardest-hit areas, rescuers went door to door to over 3,000 homes.

“There’s really been a herculean effort,” said Governor DeSantis at a Tallahassee news conference.

In Washington the White House said that President Joe Biden had issued disaster declarations for Florida and South Carolina to expedite federal assistance. Two thousand federal personnel were already in place in Florida, President Biden said at a Washington appearance, including Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Dozens of Coast Guard boats and helicopters are participating in search operations. Coast Guard aircraft rescued 80 people along the southwest Florida coast on Friday, with some plucked from rooftops.

“This is not just a crisis for Florida. This is an American crisis,” said President Biden.

Learning to respond more quickly

Mr. Moskowitz toured the center of destruction in Florida on Friday by air and says he saw widespread destruction, much of which will need to be rebuilt. 

The response begins with health and safety efforts to find and rescue survivors and provide food, water, shelter, and other necessities. 

That is a big logistical effort, he says. You have to push all sorts of supplies into affected areas, including generators, pumps, and light towers. Officials will need to erect base camps with showers, laundry facilities, and dining rooms, just so all those coming in to help, from contractors to volunteers, have a place to stay.

“Thinking about the rebuild, the recovery effort – that is coming, and that is going to be a monumental task,” says Mr. Moskowitz, who is running for Congress in Florida’s 23rd District as a Democrat. “But for right now and for the foreseeable future, we are in the response phase.”

Florida has a lot of experience in running these sorts of operations, he says. The current head of the state Division of Emergency Management is Kevin Guthrie, Mr. Moskowitz’s former deputy.

One thing the state has learned through experience is that it needs to move fast. The process used to be to wait out the storm, assess the damage and possible supplies needed, and then obtain them. Now Florida emergency managers order the basics they are almost certain to need, such as generators and food, in advance. They pre-position supplies.

That shaves precious time off response.

Meanwhile, the media should not be surprised that President Biden and Governor DeSantis, political opponents who might even face each other in the 2024 election, are working together in the wake of the hurricane, says Mr. Moskowitz. The pair worked together after a previous state disaster, the collapse last year of a condominium building in the Miami suburb of Surfside.

“That’s what happens when you have these catastrophic events. It has to work that way. Emergency management has to be nonpartisan,” he says.

How leaders can lose trust

Emergency management also needs to be effective, given the political and human stakes.

History shows what happens when politicians fumble the response to natural disasters. During the Depression, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration sent hundreds of jobless veterans to Florida to help build a railway to the Keys. When a hurricane loomed in 1935, officials waffled on evacuating the men, and hundreds died. Administration officials wrestled with political blowback for months.

In 1992 Hurricane Andrew left hundreds of thousands homeless in Florida and Louisiana, and President George H.W. Bush was criticized for moving food, rescue personnel, and other essentials too slowly. Two months later, amid voter discontent with the economy, President Bush lost his reelection bid.

After the widespread disaster of the response to Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana’s Democratic Governor Blanco did not bother to run for reelection. She retired from politics thereafter. FEMA Administrator Michael Brown, who appeared unaware days following the hurricane that evacuees were stranded at the New Orleans convention center amid terrible conditions, was fired shortly thereafter.

These events show why political squabbling over hurricane response can be so disastrous on many levels, says John Tures, a political scientist at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia, who has written about the history of hurricane politics.

“There are plenty of other issues that we can fight about on other things. Hurricanes shouldn’t be one of them,” he says.

The primary focus has to be treating Democrats and Republicans the same in hurricane response, Dr. Tures says. So far that seems to be happening after Hurricane Ian.

“Both DeSantis and Biden are showing signs of professionalism, and that’s very encouraging because the images [of the disaster] look terrible,” he says.

Addressing inequity

Going forward, one aspect of the allocation of recovery aid that both the federal and state governments need to keep in mind is equity, says Fernando Tormoso-Aponte, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh.

According to his research, disadvantaged communities suffer more from natural disasters and often have to wait longer for services like power and water to resume. In poorer communities, more residents lack the funds to evacuate in the first place. They have less access to health care even in normal times.

Some of the areas affected by Ian, such as Orlando, are highly unequal. Authorities should keep that in mind when dispatching power crews, water trucks, or other key assets, Dr. Tormoso-Aponte says.

“We know that if they are prioritized, we can save lives,” he says.

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