The politics of disaster, Florida-style

October 9, 2018 12:06 pm
andrew gillum

Tallahassee mayor and governor’s candidate Andrew Gillum filling sandbags in Tallahassee. Gary Fineout photo.

Hurricane Michael hasn’t hit land and it’s already political. Not only is the general election around the corner, but one full-time Tallahassee resident (Democrat Mayor Andrew Gillum) and one part-time Tallahassee resident (Republican Gov. Rick Scott), are in the final throes of bitter campaigns as the storm barrels toward Florida’s Panhandle.

Gillum, now the Democratic candidate for governor, is helping fill sandbags, holding storm preparedness meetings, and appearing on TV. Scott, now running for U.S. Senate, is attending storm-preparedness meetings, giving briefings at the state’s Emergency Operations Center, and appearing on TV. Both are wearing their standard-issue politician-in-a-disaster baseball caps.

It’s worth noting there’s some bad hurricane memories here: Scott and Gillum had a public spat in 2016 when Hurricane Hermine came through Tallahassee, making a giant mess of the capital city.

Florida’s capital is nestled inside a massive canopy of live oak trees, which means trees and branches fall when the wind blows hard, and the power invariably goes out. It’s just a fact of life here. When the power goes out for days – especially when it’s hot and sticky – tempers get short. People start wondering aloud if all these trees are really such a good idea.

After Hermine, Republicans, including Gov. Scott, criticized the City of Tallahassee’s response, and Gillum fought back. Several people close to the event defend the City of Tallahassee’s efforts post-Hermine.

“We had no loss of life and restored power quickly.  And our city came together. That’s leadership,” the local sheriff in Tallahassee, Walt McNeil, was quoted in the Tallahassee Democrat. (McNeil supports Gillum for governor).

The Republican Party of Florida has been airing misleading and brutal attack ads suggesting that Gillum somehow flubbed the Hermine response by rejecting aid from outside utility crews, and claiming his Republican opponent, former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, would do better. The City of Tallahassee runs its own municipal utility, and experts who looked afterward at the city’s response say Tallahassee had adequate crews and utility officials were focused on properly allocating the workload.

Barry Moline, the former head of the Florida Municipal Electric Association, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that Gillum didn’t make decisions about crews after Hurricane Hermine. The way Tallahassee is structured, the mayor doesn’t do that – utility officials have that responsibility. Moline said he and Tallahassee’s general manager of electric utilities were the ones making decisions about allocating crews in the days after Hermine, when trucks were rolling through the streets removing tree debris.

“Any claim that suggests the mayor had anything to do with rejecting crews is a flat-out lie,” said Moline, who now serves as executive director of the California Municipal Utilities Association. “It’s wrong. It’s false. It didn’t happen. The mayor wasn’t involved with selecting or choosing crews to bring into Tallahassee.”

This week, even President Donald Trump took a shot at Gillum on WFTV in Orlando,  charging that Gillum “runs a place that has a lot of problems and I know it very well, but it’s got a lot of problems, tremendous corruption, tremendous crime.”

Those of us who live in lovely Tallahassee would beg to differ – but Trump’s tendency toward false hyperbole is well known by everyone in the world at this point. It’s oddly comforting to know we are not alone in finding ourselves at the other end of a weird, vicious, uncalled-for Trump insult.

Gillum has had a tough week. His grandmother died and he went to Jacksonville over the weekend to attend her funeral. Now he’s back in Tallahassee with a natural disaster staring him in the face.

Gillum decided not to let Trump’s obnoxious go unchallenged. On Twitter, Gillum fired back:

“Hey @realDonaldTrump — don’t come to my state and talk trash about my city while we are preparing for a Category 3 hurricane. We need a partner right now, not a partisan.”

Actually, Hurricane Michael is a category 2 right now, but you know how that Gulf tends to whip up a storm. Tomorrow will tell.


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Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.