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As winds blow harder, the politics of catastrophe become more frayed

By Tom Baxter

Even in times as divided as these, the old rituals of bipartisan cooperation will reemerge if the wind blows hard enough.

President Joe Biden and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, potential rivals in 2024, made nice to each other last week as Hurricane Ian ripped across Florida and into the Carolinas, and by all reports the federal and state partners have worked together smoothly in the aftermath of the storm. But if storms like Ian become more frequent, the politics of catastrophe will become increasingly frayed.

Last week, while Florida’s senators were urging a “robust and timely response” to the havoc wreaked by Ian in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Rick Scott and every Republican member of the Florida delegation voted against a stopgap budget bill which included $18.8 billion for unspecified disaster relief. Sen. Marco Rubio was in Florida and didn’t vote on that measure, but he said later he would vote against a disaster aid bill for Ian if it was loaded up with “stuff that’s unrelated to the storm.”

There you have the narrow path that Red State Republicans in hurricane-sensitive states must walk. They have to get the money, but they can’t be in favor of the way they get the money. Cast in a national light, this makes them look hypocritical, but it doesn’t seem to hurt them that much among their own voters. So long as they get the money.

It will take a while before there’s an accurate tally of the damage, but Ian may be the storm that reveals a looming financial disaster greater than anything contemplated in previous relief bills. Only about 29 percent of the homes in the nine Florida counties declared disaster areas last week have federal flood insurance, which means thousands of homeowners could be financially ruined by this storm. That raises the specter of economic refugees in a state where the governor has staged the expulsion of economic refugees from other places.

A half-century ago, much of the area devastated by Ian was still covered in storm-resistant mangrove swamps. Over that time some parts of the area have grown by more than 600 percent. In the aftermath of the storm last week, the Washington Post examined how Fort Myers and the area around it are characteristic of something going on across much of the coastal Southeast: more and more people are moving into increasingly vulnerable areas. Leaving climate change completely aside, that fact alone portends more storms that threaten human lives and property.

At this point we should speak — with some hesitation because fate has a nasty memory — of something Ian illustrated. It was so strong that it tore across the Florida peninsula and slammed into the Carolinas, but for the most part it blew past Georgia.

Georgia has weathered a number of devastating hurricanes in its history, including the 1893 Sea Islands storm which killed between 1,000 and 2,000 people. But it isn’t surrounded by water like Florida and doesn’t jut out into the Atlantic Ocean like the coastal Carolinas. If we are in an era of increasing storms, that’s worth some serious thought.

Not that the state hasn’t already suffered severe economic damage from the secondary effects of hurricanes, like the crop damage to South Georgia farms. But Georgia may increasingly become an evacuation location, temporary or permanent, for people from its harder-hit neighboring states.

That’s for future consideration. In Florida this week, disaster workers were “still trying to figure out who was home and who wasn’t” when the storm hit, as DeSantis put it. That will determine how high the death toll, already high for the modern era, will climb.

By Election Day, there will still be Floridians struggling to pull their lives back together. Whether that has an effect on this year’s election remains to be seen, but Ian is a warning that this time of storms could only be in its infancy.

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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