By Steve Contorno, CNN
As he walked away from a stand of microphones, an onlooker shouted, “2028! 2028, Ron!”
“2024!” another supporter called out to DeSantis, a potential future presidential contender.
But as he manages Florida through the aftermath of one of the most powerful storms to ever hit his state, the Republican governor has moved his focus from his many political battles to the crisis at hand. DeSantis has filled the hours meeting with emergency management teams, surveying the damage from the Gulf to the Atlantic and calling Florida lawmakers and the CEOs of large corporations that operate in the state. In on-camera briefings — of which he has held 10 through Friday since the morning of Ian’s arrival — he shares matter-of-fact accounts of the devastation and loss, demonstrating painstaking command of rescue and recovery logistics.
For DeSantis, the tonal shift has required a deliberate exodus from the political environment he helped create amid his ascent to GOP megastar with presidential ambitions. It has meant playing nice with the White House just days after threatening to ship migrants from the southern border to President Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware while lobbying unapologetically for the kind of disaster aid that as a congressman he voted against as wasteful spending. DeSantis, whose reelection campaign hawks “Don’t Tread on Florida” gear, has also welcomed help from several blue-state governors he has often antagonized.
“When people are fighting for their lives, when their whole livelihood is at stake, when they’ve lost everything — if you can’t put politics aside for that, then you’re just not going to be able to,” DeSantis told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson on Wednesday night.
Responding to a crisis
Hours before the appearance, Hurricane Ian had barreled into Florida’s west coast as a 155 mph giant, thrashing the area with a storm surge that swallowed entire neighborhoods and left hundreds of thousands homeless and millions in the state without power. At least 45 fatalities have been attributed to the storm as of Friday night. Fort Myers Beach was obliterated. Sanibel Island, so much as it exists, is cut off from the rest of the peninsula. Orlando flooded. So did St. Augustine — a city 275 miles and on an entirely different coast from where Hurricane Ian’s calamitous eye first breached Florida’s Gulf side.
DeSantis met privately with victims Friday, his office said. He has visited the damage, though he hasn’t allowed reporters or cameras to tag along to capture his reaction. In Punta Gorda on Thursday, DeSantis described the storm surge as “biblical.”
“It washed away roads,” he said. “It washed away structures that were not new and couldn’t withstand that.”
Later that evening, DeSantis told reporters, “We absolutely expect to have mortality from this hurricane,” but urged against speculation of how deadly the storm would be.
DeSantis and his wife, first lady Casey DeSantis, have urged people to donate to the state’s recovery fund, which had raised more than $10 million for direct relief as of Thursday night.
If there are questions about the government’s response to Ian, they have mostly focused on when residents in Southwest Florida were encouraged to evacuate. With early forecasts predicting a landfall further north, Lee County did not order evacuations until Tuesday, one day before the storm hit.
Asked Friday about the state’s preparations for a storm to hit that part of the state, DeSantis defended his administration’s response and said communities “sprung into action” as predictions shifted the storm south.
“Seventy-two hours before landfall, Fort Myers and Naples were not even in the cone,” DeSantis said during a news conference in Lee County, referring to the shape of the storm’s forecasted path.
While the “cone” did not include Fort Myers or Naples three days before landfall, Ian made landfall in Cayo Costa in Lee County — a point inside the cone 72 hours before landfall and in all of the other dozens of cones issued for the storm.
The cone, by definition, is not meant to encompass a storm’s impacts, but rather the likely location of the storm’s center. Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist tracking Atlantic storms at Colorado State University, said one-third of storms over the past five years have had made landfall outside the cone.
The National Hurricane Center “emphasized throughout Ian’s approach to Florida that there was larger than normal uncertainty in its future track,” Klotzbach said. “I think it’s a common misperception with the cone that the forecast will always fall within that cone.”
The initial forecast 120 hours out put most of the Florida peninsula in the storm’s path, including Fort Myers and Naples.
On a Zoom call with reporters Friday, DeSantis’ Democratic opponent Charlie Crist, himself a former governor, said he “might have gotten started a little bit earlier” if he were still in charge.
“Frankly, you know, putting warnings out that I think are appropriate,” Crist said, before saying he would hold off on further armchair quarterbacking this early in the recovery.
A change of course with Washington
DeSantis has praised the assistance the state has received from the Biden administration. Biden has said he has talked with DeSantis several times in recent days and promised the federal government’s help for as long as it is needed.
DeSantis on Wednesday asked the administration for assistance for “all 67 counties, for all categories, and all types of assistance.” In a letter to Biden, DeSantis asked the President to provide the aid sight unseen because “damage assessments would be a clear waste of resources during a time of critical need.” DeSantis has appeared satisfied with the federal response.
“We really appreciate FEMA’s responsiveness to this disaster,” DeSantis told a representative from Biden’s Federal Emergency Management Agency at a news conference on Friday. “So thank you very much and thank you for being here.”
In a statement to CNN, Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for FEMA, said of DeSantis’ requests so far: “Everything the governor has asked for is consistent with how other states make requests for federal support.”
But outside Florida, DeSantis’ asks for help have not gone unnoticed in light of his past opposition to similar aid. DeSantis, who was elected to the US House in 2012 amid the heyday of the tea party movement, stood against a $9.7 billion relief package for the New York and New Jersey victims of Hurricane Sandy in one of his first congressional votes. He described the bill’s price tag as an example of the country’s “‘put it on the credit card mentality.”
“Just a reminder to New York … Ron DeSantis (who was in Congress at the time) voted against aid for Hurricane Sandy,” Yuh-Line Niou, a member of the New York State Assembly, said on Twitter. “But because we are New York, we care about everyone. Even when they don’t care about us.”
The public often expects leaders to put politics aside during emergencies, said Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and author of “Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management From the Oval Office.”
“It’s a huge opportunity to show he’s a competent, hands-on manager, knows what he’s doing, can be compassionate,” said Troy, who was an aide to President George W. Bush when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. “It’s also a vulnerability. If he makes a verbal misstep, it gets elevated. If there’s a community that needs help and he is slow in responding, the media will focus on it. Florida is known for having one of the best disaster prep response teams, and he’s dealing with the best of the best. That makes your job easier, and it also means the expectations are high.”
Steve Schale, a veteran Democratic strategist in Florida, said DeSantis appears to be passing the test so far.
“He’s doing what he’s supposed to do which is focus on being governor,” Schale said. “And he’s saying and doing all the right things.”
DeSantis has not completely shut down his political shop while he deals with the storm. His campaign, which enjoys a 10-to-1 fundraising advantage over Crist, continued to run television ads as Ian hit the state and in the days since. Crist pulled his ads down in most television markets.
Two days before Ian made landfall, with Florida firmly in its path, DeSantis’ political committee recorded a $1 million check from the Seminole Tribe of Florida. During the early months of the pandemic, another crisis that commanded most of his attention, DeSantis did not accept campaign contributions.
It’s not clear when DeSantis will return to the campaign trail. But the longer the storm recovery, the more difficult it also becomes for Democrats to change the conversation back to the issues they hoped to run on, Schale said.
“Anything that stops the calendar probably benefits the incumbent that has the lead,” Schale said. “It’s fair to say DeSantis has both.”
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CNN’s Brandon Miller contributed to this report.