A year ago — before he lost 30 pounds, raised tens of millions of dollars and announced plans to run for president — Jeb Bush quietly celebrated an anniversary.
He returned to Port Charlotte, Fla., a retirement community slammed in August 2004 by Hurricane Charley, a storm that launched a deadly two-year span of tropical weather while he was governor of Florida.
After Charley came Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. In 2005, Hurricanes Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma.
“These hurricanes kind of etched my soul in many ways,” he told locals, adding later: “The most important thing that I’ll always remember was dealing with eight hurricanes, four tropical storms in 2004 and 2005, and doing it with the most dedicated, committed public servants and volunteers at the local, county and state level that you could ever imagine. It was the greatest joy of my life.”
For most Americans, the storm that stands out from that period is Katrina — which decimated New Orleans and plunged George W. Bush’s presidency into crisis after the government’s poor response. In Florida, by contrast, many agree that Jeb Bush knew how to handle hurricanes.
Whether Jeb Bush can turn his hurricane experiences into political gain — and separate himself from his controversial brother in the process — could prove critical to his fight for the Republican presidential nomination. His history with the storms will be the focus of a town hall meeting Wednesday in Pensacola, Fla., and comes at a time when he has slipped in recent polls behind Donald Trump among Florida Republicans — a once unthinkable occurrence.
“We made a difference,” Bush said in a recent interview with The Washington Post about his experience with natural disasters. “And we got better as it went along. Every time there was a problem you can’t anticipate.”
Bush’s role during the deadly storms in Florida provides a sharp contrast with the presidencies of his father and brother, both of whom lost public support after flat-footed responses to hurricanes. In 1992, after Hurricane Andrew ravaged South Florida, the slow federal response contributed to George H.W. Bush’s reelection loss, many Republicans have said. And George W. Bush’s popularity never rebounded after Katrina.
Later, Barack Obama’s campaign cited George W. Bush’s poor handling of natural disasters. But as president, Obama hired Craig Fugate, Jeb Bush’s emergency management chief, to run the beleaguered Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Bush says that if he wins the White House, he wants to keep Fugate on the job to help him again. Fugate — who will travel with Obama to New Orleans this week to mark the 10th anniversary of Katrina — said in an interview that he is open to sticking around.
“I learned a long time ago you never say never,” he said. “Governor Bush gave me my shot and allowed me to do my job, and he supported me. I could not ask for a better boss in that role.”
Over two years, the storms caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damage and plunged millions of Floridians into darkness for months. Airports, businesses, highways and millions of homes had to be rebuilt. Bush spent most of his time commanding the state’s response from a conference room at an emergency management operations center in Tallahassee.
“We didn’t anticipate that he would be there for a couple of months, but that’s kind of what happened,” said Deirdre Finn, one of Bush’s deputy chiefs of staff for emergency management.
Bush, a self-professed policy wonk, talked at length in the Post interview about the nitty-gritty details of storm management — what he learned about residential building codes, how to reverse the flow of interstate highways, how gasoline is pumped into Florida, and how to open and close seaports. He noted that he was one of the first public officials in the country to lead news briefings in English and Spanish.
“I was all in, and everyone who worked for me was equally all in. And we got better and we took on more than anyone could imagine,” he said.
“We didn’t rely on the federal government for anything, except money, which was huge, because we would have gone bankrupt,” he continued.
A review of e-mails Bush sent in 2004 and 2005 shows how closely he was tracking storms and the distribution of aid in their aftermath. Meteorologists from the National Hurricane Center sent regular forecast updates. Highway officials e-mailed him asking to suspend tolls to ease congestion as residents evacuated. Priests asked for help with food banks. Hundreds of Floridians sent unsolicited advice and criticism.
When a man e-mailed Bush complaining about impassable roads in Marion County, he wrote back: “I am on the case. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I am so sorry for the massive inconvinience [sic].” He copied Fugate and other top aides to alert them of the problem.
“How we doing on tarps?” Bush asked Fugate in an e-mail on Sept. 20, 2004. Hurricane Ivan had made landfall just four days before and was about to hit the state again. Hurricane Jeanne was four days away.
Fugate’s response included raw data points: “Update: 5,000 tarps (2 trucks) were delivered to Santa Rosa County and distributed during the day 9/19/04. 2 trucks came in to LSA #5 Duke Field (8,000 tarps) at 0300 on 9/20/04. 1 airflight (DC-3) with 180 rolls of plastic (20’x50’) arrived 9/19/04 pm.”
Fugate said Bush’s reliance on e-mail was typical — but was not a sign of micromanagement.
“Although you see a lot of questions, you see very few things where he’s telling you how to do stuff,” Fugate said.
“Working for Governor Bush, to me, is not dissimilar to working for the president, in that they may ask questions and they’re both very much — they’re going to ask all kinds of stuff,” Fugate added, referring to Obama. “It’s more so that they have a better understanding and confidence of what’s happening.”
Dan Gelber, a former Florida House Democratic leader who frequently sparred with Bush, offered praise. “I have a lot of unflattering things to say about Jeb, but I have not criticized him for that,” Gelber said. “He did a good job. He was present, he delivered the resources you would hope for, asked for the help that was needed and didn’t politicize it.”
Michael Brown — who led FEMA during Katrina before being pushed out in the wake of the dismal response — said that Jeb Bush was one of the best-trained governors he worked with during his tenure.
“I wish all governors conducted their business the way that Jeb did,” said Brown, who now hosts a radio show in Denver. “I always hated to say that, because people usually respond, ‘Well you say that and you guys were friends.’ That’s true, but he knew what his job was, I knew what my job was.”
Brown said Bush has never sought his advice on emergency management issues or politics. “Let me answer that on his behalf: If I were in his shoes, I wouldn’t ask me,” he said. “I’m toxic, you know that and I know that. Nobody’s going to ask me that stuff, and I wouldn’t ask him to.”
Some of Bush’s e-mails doled out praise. “Words cannot express my deep felt admiration of how you have handled your duties during these difficult times,” he wrote to Fugate in late September 2004. “I am grateful beyond words.”
“Sir, thanks for giving me the chance to serve you and our state,” Fugate wrote back.
But Bush mostly focused on business. In September 2005, as the country was reeling from Katrina and Florida was awaiting the arrival of Hurricanes Rita and Wilma, he e-mailed Fugate and Finn: “Are we ready for the next hurricane?”