Editorial: On the long struggle after Hurricane Idalia’s devastation, Floridians should walk together

Joe Raedle/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

Barring an unlikely spin in the Atlantic, Idalia’s impact on Central Florida was damp but sparse. For that, this region can be thankful. But watching the scenes of devastation in the hardest-hit counties — a tight band of chaos that tracks from the Big Bend northeast toward Valdosta, Georgia — it is clear that hundreds of thousands of people have had their lives turned upside down, and some have likely perished.

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They will need their fellow Floridians’ compassion, support and help. Some is already on its way: As early as Wednesday afternoon, posts were showing up on social media announcing fundraising efforts and mobilizing people in other parts of Florida to volunteer for storm cleanup. Floridians should be on guard for scams, but the instinct to help is always heartwarming.

Power was out for more than a quarter-million households — a number that will almost certainly rise as trees in flood-soaked ground topple and waterlogged transformers blow — but thousands of line workers from other parts of the state and country poured in from a staging point in north Lake County. Those workers have already restored power to at least 270,000 additional Florida customers.

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Idalia’s winds and rain tore off roofs, spawned storm surges that turned streets of coastal towns into raging rivers as deep as 15 feet and sent earth sliding into rivers and seas. Until the water recedes and search-and-rescue efforts begin, it will be impossible to know how many homes and businesses will be declared total losses, or how many Floridians were caught in their homes by floodwaters that crested above their roofs. Though this wild, lovely stretch of coast is among the most sparsely populated in Florida, the total could be staggering.

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Florida should be grateful to those who have already stepped up, including the tens of thousands of utility workers, National Guard members, public-safety workers and others who left their own families and homes to ensure that others were safe. Some of them will return home with memories that will haunt them for a long time to come.

And in the weeks to come, the state will learn — as it does every time — a little more about the changing reality that will shove ever-increasing amounts of wind and rain toward fragile coastal communities and cause impacts far inland. One dramatic photo, taken by Florida’s first lady Casey DeSantis, tells that tale: Though Tallahassee is more than an hour from any beach, a historic oak on the grounds of the governor’s mansion split and tumbled, with part of it leaning against the home itself. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.

Leadership Florida needed

As for Gov. Ron DeSantis, he has been a rock-steady, authoritative figure who seems to have left the campaign trail behind in every way for the duration of this emergency. His frequent briefings have been comprehensive and factual — and, thus far, devoid of political spin. That was exactly what many Floridians in Idalia’s path needed to hear: A voice of leadership they trusted enough to follow.

In the coming days and weeks, DeSantis will have difficult decisions to make — including when and whether to resume his presidential campaign. At times like this, however, Florida needs its governor. We hope he remains focused on the swift action needed in the aftermath of a major, devastating storm, that he will tell his people to engage with federal emergency-management officials without rancor and that he and other state officials will maintain a stern and united front against scammers who price-gouge or insurance companies that deny valid claims.

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We also hope Florida lawmakers are watching as the waters recede and Big Bend residents begin their long, slow struggle toward recovery. Over the next days and weeks, we will see Floridians helping Floridians. Those who donate money from their own meager earnings; those who pray for the recovery of people they will never meet; those who load chainsaws, coolers and donations of food and clothing into buses and trucks that will take them into devastated areas such as Cedar Key — are coming together with little regard for religion, immigration status, sexual orientation or political beliefs.

These next few weeks will remind us of who Floridians really are — and how much we have to be proud of, even in times of sorrow.

The Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Opinion Editor Krys Fluker, Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson and Viewpoints Editor Jay Reddick. Contact us at insight@orlandosentinel.com