President Joe Biden on Saturday toured the damage left behind in Florida by Hurricane Idalia.
Biden and the first lady landed in Gainesville Saturday afternoon and had an aerial tour of the damage on their way to Live Oak in Suwanee County. Their first stop was Suwanee Pineview Elementary School, which is being used as a Red Cross shelter.
Biden was briefed about recovery efforts and met with local officials, including Sen. Rick Scott, R-FL., as well as first responders and storm survivors.
“All the officials from Florida, we want to thank them,” Biden said after the tour, briefing, and meetings. “Folks who ran toward danger instead of away from the danger when the storm came and hit. It meant a lot.”
The president vowed to approve any requests from the state for federal recovery resources, and urged Congress to ensure funding is available for this and future disasters.
“Your nation has your back and will be with you until the job is done,” Biden said.
Idalia made landfall in the state Wednesday as a Category 3 hurricane, bringing powerful winds, relentless rain and devastating storm surge to Florida’s Big Bend.
On Saturday afternoon, Biden praised the cooperative storm response by ordinary Floridians, saying, “The spirit of this community is remarkable.”
“When people are in real trouble, the most important thing you can give them is hope,” Biden said. “There’s no hope like your neighbor walking across the street to see what they can do for you.”
Biden did not see the state’s Republican governor and 2024 presidential hopeful, Ron DeSantis, who suggested a meeting could hinder disaster response efforts.
“We don’t have any plans for the Governor to meet with the President tomorrow,” Jeremy Redfern, press secretary for the Florida governor’s office, said in a statement to NBC News on Friday.
“In these rural communities, and so soon after impact, the security preparations alone that would go into setting up such a meeting would shut down ongoing recovery efforts,” he added.
Biden’s visit could be overtaken by politics given that DeSantis’ statement came hours after the president said he would be meeting with the governor.
On Saturday afternoon, Biden said he was not disappointed DeSantis did not meet him.
“He may have had other reasons,” the president said in response to a reporter’s question. “But he did help us plan this. He sat with FEMA and decided where we should go, where would be the least disruption.”
In response to the announcement by DeSantis’ office, White House spokeswoman Emilie Simons said in a statement that Biden’s visit was “planned in close coordination” with Federal Emergency Management personnel “as well as state and local leaders to ensure there is no impact on response operations.”
The political disconnect between both sides is a break from the recent past, since Biden and DeSantis met when the president toured Florida after Hurricane Ian hit the state last year, and following the Surfside condo collapse in Miami Beach in summer 2021. But DeSantis is now running to unseat Biden, and he only left the Republican presidential primary trail with Idalia barreling toward his state.
Putting aside political rivalries following natural disasters can be tricky, meanwhile.
Another 2024 presidential candidate, former Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has long been widely criticized in GOP circles for embracing then-President Barack Obama during a tour of damage 2012’s Hurricane Sandy did to his state. Christie was even asked about the incident last month, during the first Republican presidential debate.
Both Biden and DeSantis at first suggested that helping storm victims would outweigh partisan differences. But the governor began suggesting that a presidential trip would complicate response logistics as the week wore on.
“There’s a time and a place to have political season,” the governor said before Idalia made landfall. “But then there’s a time and a place to say that this is something that’s life threatening, this is something that could potentially cost somebody their life, it could cost them their livelihood.”
By Friday, the governor was telling reporters of Biden, “one thing I did mention to him on the phone” was “it would be very disruptive to have the whole security apparatus that goes” with the president “because there are only so many ways to get into” many of the hardest hit areas.
“What we want to do is make sure that the power restoration continues and the relief efforts continue and we don’t have any interruption in that,” DeSantis said.
Biden joked while delivering pizzas to workers at FEMA’s Washington headquarters on Thursday that he’d spoken to DeSantis so frequently about Idalia that “there should be a direct dial” between the pair. Homeland Security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall pointed to the experiences after Ian and Surfside collapse in saying earlier this week 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.”
The post-Idalia political consequences are high for both men.
As Biden seeks reelection, the White House has asked for an additional $4 billion to address natural disasters as part of its supplemental funding request to Congress. That would bring the total to $16 billion and highlight that wildfires, flooding and hurricanes have intensified during a period of climate change, imposing ever higher costs on U.S. taxpayers.
“I’m calling on the United States Congress, Democrats and Republicans, to make sure the funding is there to deal with the immediate crisis as well as our longterm commitments to the safety of the American people,” Biden said Saturday afternoon in Florida.
DeSantis has built his White House bid around dismantling what he calls Democrats’ “woke” policies. The governor also frequently draws applause at GOP rallies by declaring that it’s time to send “Joe Biden back to his basement,” a reference to the Democrat’s Delaware home, where he spent much of his time during the early lockdowns of the coronavirus pandemic.
But four months before the first ballots are to be cast in Iowa’s caucuses, DeSantis still lags far behind former President Donald Trump, the Republican primary’s dominant early front-runner. And he has cycled through repeated campaign leadership shakeups and reboots of his image in an attempt to refocus his message.
The super PAC supporting DeSantis’ candidacy also has halted its door-knocking operations in Nevada, which votes third on the Republican presidential primary calendar, and several states holding Super Tuesday primaries in March — a further sign of trouble.
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