Tropical Storm Idalia is commanding the nation’s attention as it makes its destructive way across the nation’s Southeast.
The focus at this stage is rightly on the human toll. As of Wednesday afternoon, there were no direct fatalities officially reported in Florida, the first and hardest-hit state — though two deaths in car crashes may have been linked to the weather conditions.
Nearly half a million people across three states were, however, without power amid wide-scale flooding.
Even a nonpolitical event like Idalia has political consequences, especially for the two leaders most directly involved: President Biden and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). DeSantis is in second place to former President Trump in almost every poll of the race for the GOP’s presidential nomination.
A faltering response from the federal government could hurt Biden, who has already faced criticism for his reaction to the wildfires that afflicted Maui earlier this month. The stakes are similarly high for DeSantis, whose central claim of executive competence is being put to the test.
But if the storm carries political perils, it also offers the possibility of respite, of a kind, from an otherwise unforgiving atmosphere.
For Biden, there is a chance to demonstrate the federal government’s capacity to respond to disaster, and to fill the role of uniter in chief for the nation.
For DeSantis, the storm puts him center stage in an uncharacteristically noncontroversial way — just days after he was booed at a vigil for the victims of what police said was a racist shooting in Jacksonville, Fla.
“Voters want competence,” said GOP consultant Alex Conant. “That was an early theme of DeSantis’s campaign, and it could be again, moving forward, if people judge him to be handling this well.”
DeSantis held two news conferences Wednesday, the day on which the storm made landfall on Florida’s west coast.
In a morning appearance, he insisted that Florida residents “wherever you are” should “hunker down and not take anything for granted.”
His afternoon appearance was mostly focused on informational updates such as noting that there had been no confirmed fatalities and that any closed airports were moving toward reopening.
The storm itself is a reminder to voters that DeSantis, unlike Trump, actually wields executive power these days.
It also refreshes memories of DeSantis’s widely praised response to Hurricane Ian last year. Biden held a joint news conference with DeSantis in Fort Myers last October at which he said the governor had done a “pretty remarkable” job.
Trump, a Florida resident, is not entirely ready to cede the stage to DeSantis this week, however.
In a Truth Social posting Wednesday, Trump wrote, “Our hearts go out to everyone impacted by Hurricane Idalia.” The former president also noted that he had “witnessed the courage, strength, and spirit of the great people of Florida many times over the years!”
Biden, for his part, told reporters at the White House on Wednesday afternoon that his administration stood “ready to mobilize” help for any state that needed it. Biden also noted that he had spoken with DeSantis and “approved an early request for an emergency declaration.”
Asked by one reporter if he had sensed a political strand to his conversation with DeSantis, Biden demurred.
The president referenced the two men’s joint efforts in the wake of “the last major storm” and added, “I think he trusts my judgment and my desire to help, and I trust him to be able to suggest this is not about politics. It’s about taking care of the people of his state.”
The amicable rhetoric doesn’t eliminate political risk, however.
A little more than a decade ago, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) toured his Superstorm Sandy-ravaged state with then-President Obama. The move initially boosted Christie’s standing in blue-tinted New Jersey, but it became an albatross when he ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
Still, historically a far bigger political injury has been incurred whenever federal or state leaders are judged lacking in their responses.
The most infamous example, by some distance, is then-President George W. Bush’s actions after Hurricane Katrina, which wreaked havoc on New Orleans — and affected a swath of territory in Mississippi and Alabama as well as Louisiana — in 2005.
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, noted other broadly similar examples, including the response of the first President Bush to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and Obama’s initially fruitless attempts to plug the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.
“These things can be extremely damaging if they are not handled well,” Zelizer said. “They are tangible, and the stories that come out of them have a lot of power.”
For the moment, both Biden and DeSantis will take a measure of comfort from the fact that the initial impact of the storm was not as catastrophic as it might have been.
But veterans of previous major storms caution against any premature optimism.
Conant, who worked in Bush’s White House during Katrina, noted that the nature of hurricane damage, almost always including major flooding, can greatly complicate recovery efforts.
Hurricane impacts “get worse,” Conant recalled. “You might think that the initial blow wasn’t as bad as it could have been. But it is very hard to get supplies into people and the difficulties compound.”
He added: “The day after Katrina, people were breathing a sigh of relief. A week later, it became clear it was very different.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.