(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Countless Floridians left hanging as Trump's FEMA struggles to respond to Hurricane Michael

Floridians suffer in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael as FEMA tells them to take care of themselves


Matthew Rozsa
October 14, 2018 4:00PM (UTC)

Thousands of Floridians are struggling to get by in the wake of Hurricane Michael, even as officials in President Donald Trump's administration are attempting to provide relief in the aftermath of the natural disaster.

"We want people to realize that really, they’re in charge of their own recovery. That as you’re looking to rebuild your business, your home, your community, that the local efforts are always going to lead," FEMA representative Dave Passey told a local Florida news station, News 13, regarding how Florida residents should respond to the crisis. He later added, "Document those losses. Take photos. If you have losses that you know aren’t going to be covered by insurance, then as the Congressman said, there are three ways to apply for disaster insurance."

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Meanwhile Brock Long, the FEMA administration under Trump, told reporters on Friday that he was frustrated at Floridians who had "not learned the lesson" from previous natural disasters and, as he implied, put themselves in harm's way by not evacuating or taking proper precautions.

"It’s frustrating to us because we repeat this same cycle over and over again. If you want to live in these areas, you’ve got to do it in a more resilient fashion," Long told the press.

Yet even as public officials urge Floridians to be patient — and even as Republican lawmakers reassured Floridians and others who would be impacted by the storm that FEMA had enough funds to help them — reports of their struggles continue to make their way into the press. While the death toll in the state remained at 11 as of Friday, people in affected areas of the state have been fighting over food, coping with unusable toilets, wandering around in attempts to find temporary shelters, struggling with spotty internet and cell phone service and suffering as they remain uncertain about the fate of loved ones, according to The New York Times. The Times report also made a point of not placing too much blame on ill-prepared government officials.

Emergency planning experts said the government had not necessarily fallen short in its response so far.

“This is what disasters look like,” said W. Craig Fugate, a former FEMA chief. “Sit tight, help’s coming, but it’s not going to be there 12 hours after the storm passes.”

Likewise, those knowledgeable about disaster planning dismissed the idea that the rapid intensification of the storm had caught emergency responders off guard. Storm preparations, they said, are mostly driven by the population of a threatened region, not the precise dimensions of a storm.

“Once you get to a certain point in this part of the coast, it’s just going to be bad,” Mr. Fugate said.

One harrowing story in The Washington Post illustrated the extent of the damage caused by the storm.

Until Saturday, when neighbors broke through with chain saws and an excavator, the Lipford home, sitting on 160 acres the family has owned since the Civil War, was cut off from civilization. The only way into the property was on an all-terrain vehicle crossing the waterlogged pastures and over bridges built of wooden pallets.

“We’re back to frontier days,” said Jean Lipford, 50. Since Hurricane Michael struck this town on Wednesday, she has been washing clothes in a bucket and bathing in the creek where her husband made a dam with small stones. Her daughter Whitney, 23, has been wielding a chain saw, returning to the house every two hours to breast-feed her 6-week-old son.

“I want power and water. The rest of it we can deal with,” Lipford said.

It is unclear how Hurricane Michael will impact the upcoming Florida elections, which are less than a month away. Right now the Democratic candidates have a slight edge over their Republican counterparts in both the Senate election between Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the gubernatorial election between Democratic Mayor Andrew Gillum and Republican former Rep. Ron DeSantis. On the one hand, President George W. Bush's unpopular response to Hurricane Katrina wound up having a devastating effect on his presidency and, by extension, on the Republican Party as a whole. At the same time, it has often been more difficult for underprivileged communities to participate in the electoral process after a natural disaster than for individuals from more affluent backgrounds, which could give an edge to Republican candidates running in close elections.

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Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a breaking news writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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2018 Midterm Elections Donald Trump Florida Hurricane Michael

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