Hurricane Ian: Amid the wreckage, a major test for both Ron DeSantis and Joe Biden

To save lives and rebuild, two men who may run against each other in 2024 must get along like actual grownups

By Heather Digby Parton


Published September 30, 2022 9:38AM (EDT)

Boat are partially submerged at a marina in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Florida, on September 29, 2022. (GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)
Boat are partially submerged at a marina in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Florida, on September 29, 2022. (GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)

The devastation in Florida from Hurricane Ian is staggering in scope. The massive storm churned across the state leaving wrecked homes and ruined lives in its wake, and it's frankly hard to watch the footage, knowing the depth of the misery people must be feeling. And we don't know the half of it yet. The scope of death and destruction will only become clear as time passes.

Over the next few days, that's all we'll be thinking about, and understandably so. But soon the focus will turn to whether or not the authorities are doing everything they can to mitigate the crisis. After a disaster of this scale there will almost certainly be fingers pointed and backs stabbed in the days to come. Natural disasters, and especially hurricanes, are often political disasters as well and the future of those in charge can be changed in an instant.

Any state that is prone to hurricanes is therefore also politically hazardous for any governor who happens to be in charge when it hits. Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, saw his poll numbers drop to 22% after Hurricane Andrew, one of the most destructive storms in the state's history, hit Miami-Dade County in 1992. South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, also a Democrat lost his re-election campaign in 2002 largely because he was perceived as mishandling the evacuation procedures ahead of Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Every governor of a hurricane state knows they need to have their windbreaker handy and be ready to get out there and show people they're doing everything they can to handle the emergency.

This challenge doesn't only confront governors, of course. Presidents must also do everything they can to summon resources and aid or they too will pay a price. The most infamous example of this, without a doubt, was the calamitous response after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. It was truly dreadful. From the Red Cross to the police to the local and state and federal government, the failures were monumental up and down the line. But the one who rtook the greatest share of the blame among the public, and rightfully so, was the president of the United States, George W. Bush. From the first days when he largely ignored the crisis while running around the country to the infamous photo-op where he told his hapless FEMA director, Michael Brown, "You're doin' a heckuva job, Brownie," Bush failed to project any sympathy for the victims or display the slightest competence, even as the country watched the widespread suffering unfold on television. His presidency never recovered, and Republicans up and down the ballot paid the price in 2008.

Another big hurricane damaged the political ambitions of another top Republican. That would be Chris Christie, who was governor of New Jersey when Hurricane Sandy destroyed much of that state's famous shoreline back in 2012. Christie suffered for quite different reasons. Behaving as governors of both parties had always done, he welcomed Barack Obama to New Jersey and thanked him for his quick, dedicated commitment to the state's recovery — and was excoriated by his fellow Republicans for ostensibly giving Obama a political boost ahead the 2012 election. Christie was eventually done in by a scandal of his own making a couple of years later but the lesson was made clear to potential rising stars in the GOP: Avoid giving any Democratic president credit for anything.

One of the new Republicans elected to Congress in that 2012 election was a young Florida hotshot who helped create the hard-right Freedom Caucus. His name was Ron DeSantis. On the day after he was sworn in to the House, he made his first big splash by voting against relief funds for Hurricane Sandy, saying, "This 'put it on the credit card' mentality is part of the reason we find ourselves nearly $17 trillion in debt."

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Flash forward a decade and DeSantis is now governor of Florida. Apparently he has seen the light. Joe Biden's administration declared a state of emergency in Florida days ahead of Hurricane Ian hitting landfall. Despite some goading by Fox News celebrities and a bit of waffling, DeSantis has generally been gracious toward Biden. The two elected officials who must face this crisis seem to be working together toward the greater good. This is one case where the GOP's total abandonment of intellectual consistency may redound to the benefit of the public.

Florida's most famous resident has posted absolutely nothing about Hurricane Ian on his homemade social media site. No doubt he's waiting to see where his possible advantage in this crisis might lie.

In this single instance, DeSantis appears not to be emulating Donald Trump's model, which was to insult any state leader who didn't vote for him and threaten to withhold aid from blue states suffering from natural disasters. His treatment of California during the catastrophic wildfire seasons during his term& was especially odious, as he publicly insulted the state's leaders, claiming they refused to obey his nonsensical (and nonexistent) edict to "rake the forests," which he claimed would have prevented disaster. His handling of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was an epic disaster all its own, as he delayed $20 billion in desperately needed aid, insisted that the death toll was a fraction of what it actually was and denigrated local officials in public. (In fairness, Trump never seemed to comprehend that Puerto Rico was part of the United States.) Of course it's true that Trump's performance in all moments of crisis was appalling, and any ambitious politician with an instinct for self-preservation would be a fool to follow his example.

Speaking of Florida's most famous resident, he has posted nothing about Hurricane Ian on his own homemade social media platform. Not one word. I have to assume that he's waiting to see where the advantage to him in this crisis might lie — and that's during the recovery effort. We can only imagine how much he's currently hoping to see failure so he can cast his own disgraceful performances as superior. If things go well he can always flip a coin and decide whether to stab DeSantis in the back and give Biden the credit, or claim that Sleepy Joe was saved by his former protégé — or both at once.

Using disasters to make cheap political points has become a commonplace Republican tactic. If Ron DeSantis, of all people, is able to resist the temptation to follow Trump's lead, then good for him. Here's hoping everyone works together to save lives and get the people of Florida back on their feet. It would be one of the first positive signs in ages that America's partisan polarization isn't a terminal disease. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Commentary Donald Trump Florida Hurricane Ian Joe Biden Ron Desantis