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Biden, DeSantis and how leaders can be defined by hurricanes

President Biden on Sept. 29 said Hurricane Ian recovery wasn’t political, adding he spoke with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) multiple times. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Biden and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) are saying the right things about working together across party lines in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.

And it’s becoming more evident that this poses a huge leadership challenge for both of them.

Biden on Thursday afternoon offered a startling forecast on the potential ultimate toll of the hurricane. While the situation is in flux and official numbers aren’t available, he said, “This could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history.”

The deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history is understood to be the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane, for which the official death toll is listed at more than 2,500, according to the National Weather Service. Were Ian to exceed the death toll of that hurricane, it would not only be the deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history, but it would also rank in the top three in U.S. history — higher even than Hurricane Katrina. The death toll for Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico in 2017, officially registers at 3,000, though a study of excess deaths in the aftermath suggests the number might have been higher.

It’s not clear what Biden is basing his suggestion on, and preliminary, unofficial figures can prove overzealous. The sheriff of Lee County, Fla., on Thursday morning estimated the death toll there alone was “definitely” “in the hundreds,” before tempering that. (For reference, the 10th-deadliest hurricane in U.S. history killed around 400 people.)

But photos of the destruction are unambiguous. DeSantis, for his part, called the damage “historic,” adding: “We’ve never seen a flood event like this. We’ve never seen a storm surge of this magnitude.”

And large-scale storms have a way of testing, and often coming to define, our state and national leaders.

Two prominent examples will always spring to mind. One is Katrina, in which a slow and botched response was among the reasons George W. Bush left office in 2009 as one of the most unpopular presidents in modern history. By contrast, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) hands-on approach and bipartisan work with President Barack Obama after Superstorm Sandy made him historically popular in his home state.

He seemed at the time to be primed for national office. But there were four years left until the next presidential election; in the meantime, the Bridgegate scandal doomed him back home, and some conservatives blamed him for helping Obama win reelection in the aftermath of the storm. (As for the storm’s actual impact on Obama’s reelection? The evidence is inconclusive.)

Other storms, further back in history, also carry lessons for politicians dealing with the fallout of Ian, as political science professor John A. Tures wrote in 2016.

During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration sent hundreds of troubled and jobless World War I veterans to work camps in Florida to build a highway to the Florida Keys, in part to keep them from protesting in Washington. A year later, in 1935, a hurricane threatened the area, but officials dithered on evacuating the men. Ultimately, what’s become known as the Labor Day hurricane killed an estimated 260 of them, prompting extensive political damage control from the administration. (Ernest Hemingway wrote a piece titled, “Who Murdered the Vets?” but FDR was able to preempt blowback in Congress and largely keep it out of the news.)

By 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson appeared to recognize the benefit of at least the appearance of a more hands-on approach to storm response. A day after Hurricane Betsy, a Category 4 storm, struck New Orleans, he was on the ground to coordinate the response. Four years later, another devastating storm along the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Camille, solidified the role of the federal government in disaster response.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew and the slow and uncoordinated response to it was a problem for President George H.W. Bush’s reelection campaign. But it was perhaps most brutal for Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles (D), whose approval rating dropped to 22 percent. (He didn’t face reelection until 1994, though, and recovered politically to win another term.)

Similarly, modern hurricanes have often proved damaging for state-level politicians. A slow evacuation ahead of Hurricane Floyd in 1999 might have contributed to South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges’ (D) reelection loss in 2002. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) didn’t even attempt to seek reelection after Katrina. And while New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (D) did narrowly win reelection in 2006, his actions — such as visiting family in Texas shortly after the storm — were widely criticized, and he was ultimately convicted of corruption charges that included actions taken after Katrina, as his city was still reeling.

And most recently, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló resigned two years after Hurricane Maria, while facing protests that were spurred in part by his government’s mismanagement of the situation.

A through-line on virtually all of these: They were among the biggest and most devastating storms in American history. It wasn’t just that the responses were particularly bad or good; it was that the stakes were higher than normal because of the impact of the storm.

It will be some time before we can appreciate the scope of what just has happened in Florida and the scale of the task that lies ahead for both leaders. In a news conference Thursday, DeSantis initially struck an optimistic tone about the state’s resilience and its ability to stay open and keep moving forward (in keeping with his messaging about coronavirus restrictions), while also making his case on non-hurricane-related agenda items like the economy.

But what we do know at this point is that, according to the historic terms both Biden and DeSantis are now speaking in, these could be legacy-defining moments for both of them.

And they’ll apparently be working together. Biden said Thursday that he intends to travel to Florida — as well as Puerto Rico, which is still reeling from Hurricane Fiona — and that he will meet with DeSantis if the governor is available.

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