Political aftershocks of Hurricane Ian’s rampage through Florida are escalating over huge federal aid needed to restore devastated communities and the question of whether those most vulnerable to extreme weather should be rebuilt at all.
As the death toll rose to 76 in the Sunshine State and crews battled to restore power, the focus turned Sunday to longer term relief and reconstruction, a process that will take years and is likely to be contentious.
And while the disaster has brought a limited truce between political rivals inside the state and in Washington, there are emerging recriminations, for example, over whether evacuation orders in one of the worst-hit areas — battered Lee County – gave people time to flee.
As residents begin a clean-up operation across the state, and those in the worst-hit regions salvage what they can from shattered homes, the enormous financial cost, alongside the human trauma, of the storm is becoming clear.
In the short term, a debate is already growing about how big federal aid must be and how quickly it can be delivered, always a question in a fractious Congress where help for hurricane reconstruction often stirs fierce partisan struggles.
On a longer time horizon, Ian’s devastation is also raising questions about how Florida, in particular, will cope in the future with monster storms more likely as climate change accelerates. Political leaders are already grappling with issues like the need for more and affordable flood insurance, the quality of housing, and the wisdom of building on exposed coasts after homes and streets were swept away in Ian’s storm surge.
Two of those leaders, Florida’s Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott blanketed Sunday’s political talk shows, calling for swift aid and dismissing questions about past GOP reservations for similar help for other states.
Rubio warned on CNN’s “State of the Union” that he would vote “no” on any aid package for his state if lawmakers tried to weigh it down with spending on pet projects that could delay its implementation and balloon its cost.
“I will fight against it having pork in it. That’s the key,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash.
“We are capable in this country, in the Congress, of voting for disaster relief … after key events like this without using it as a vehicle or a mechanism for people to load it up with stuff that’s unrelated to the storm,” said Rubio, who faces reelection in November.
Florida’s senior senator has been accused of hypocrisy for requesting the Senate Appropriations Committee work on a relief package likely to run into the billions of dollars even after opposing relief for Hurricane Sandy victims in the northeast in 2012. Rubio claimed that particular legislation had been “loaded up with a bunch of things that had nothing to do with disaster relief.”
But the controversy is a reminder of how even with the need acute in Florida, providing the state with aid quickly is going to be complicated – especially as Puerto Rico is also crying out for federal rebuilding funds following Hurricane Fiona last month, which slammed citizens still struggling to rebound from Hurricane Maria five years ago. Maria, which left many islanders without power for months, triggered a prolonged standoff between Democrats and then-President Donald Trump, who argued about the need for more federal funds for the island.
So far, the bitter politics rattling Florida ahead of the midterm elections has mostly ceded to humanitarian concerns in the wake of the storm. Rubio, GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis — who’s also facing reelection – and others have praised the initial effort by the Biden administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in surging supplies and relief assets to Florida. And President Joe Biden will assess future needs when he visits Florida on Wednesday with first lady Jill Biden, following their planned visit to Puerto Rico on Monday.
To rebuild or not to rebuild
It is already becoming clear that some smashed areas in Florida will be uninhabitable for months at least and could reinforce concerns over the impact of migration to the state by Americans keen for their own piece of paradise beside the sea.
Rubio, for instance, said on ABC’s “This Week” that the barrier island of Sanibel had essentially been “flattened.” And he told Bash on “State of the Union,” for example, that places like Fort Myers Beach, which he described as “slice of old Florida,” could be rebuilt but would never be the same.
“Some of those places that had been there for so long are just gone,” Rubio said.
Scott, Florida’s junior senator, wrestled with the question of whether some homes should be rebuilt at all given the risk of dangerous future hurricanes and the struggle many Floridians have in securing flood insurance for their properties.
“I was up in Kissimmee yesterday, and there was some flooding up there. And they weren’t in a floodplain. Nobody was told to get flood insurance. And they had about probably a foot of water in their homes, and they were just completely shocked,” Scott said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“I think you have to look at … should you build in places?” Scott said. “I believe these places are places where people want to live. They’re beautiful places. So what you really have to do is you have to say, ‘I’m going to build, but I’m going to do it safely.’”
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, meanwhile, said that homeowners needed to be increasingly aware of the challenges posed by climate change and extreme weather conditions.
“I think the important thing is that people need to understand what their potential risk can be, whether it’s along the coast or whether it’s inland and along a riverbed or even in Tornado Alley. People need to understand what their risk is,” Criswell said on “State of the Union.”
“We need to make sure that, as we rebuild, we’re at least rebuilding with the current building codes that are going to protect and reduce the impacts of these storms.
“And people need to make informed decisions about what their risk is and, if they choose to rebuild there, making sure that they do it in a way that’s going to reduce their threat.”
Questions mount over evacuation orders
As is always the case in the aftermath of hurricanes, the performance of local, state and national authorities is under scrutiny. There is growing attention on Lee County, Florida, where many of the hurricane’s deaths were recorded.
The country didn’t issue an evacuation order until Tuesday despite earlier warnings of the storm surges that would destroy much of its housing and infrastructure when the storm roared ashore on Wednesday. The county’s emergency plan suggests the order to leave – which came a day after several neighboring counties issued theirs – should have been given earlier.
DeSantis has defended local authorities, citing the uncertainty of data and on the storm track. And Scott, a former governor of Florida, said on “State of the Union” that there would be an assessment of decisions made in Lee County.
“What I’ve always tried to do as governor is say, ‘Okay, so what did we learn in each one of these,’” he said.
Sanibel Fire Rescue Medical Director Dr. Ben Abo told CNN’s Jim Acosta on Sunday that he wouldn’t be surprised if the death toll significantly increases on the island as relief efforts continue but that he supported the decisions of Lee County authorities.
He also stressed the need for individual responsibility for safety as hurricanes approach.
“A lot of people seemed to need it to be mandated, which they were warned ahead. We’re trying to give the best advice, that, ‘Hey, get out of there while you can. If you can get out sooner, the better,”’ Abo said.
“I’m seeing a lot of people still stayed.”