Sunday, September 23, 2018
Politics

The enduring image of Jeb Bush, hurricane governor

He stands in a bunker, wearing no jacket and no tie, warning Floridians to board up their homes, heed evacuation orders and stock 72 hours' worth of food and water. Above him, a radar screen shows a menacing mess of winds and clouds swirling offshore.

This is the enduring image of Jeb Bush, hurricane governor.

Nine hurricanes slammed into Florida during Bush's time in office, eight of them in a dizzying, 14-month span in 2004-05 — a record-breaking number that defined Bush as a steady executive in the face of disaster, the kind of leader he'd like to portray to the rest of the country now that he's running for president and struggling to impress Republican voters.

"I believe it's important to have leaders that actually roll up their sleeves and solve problems," Bush said Friday in Ohio. "How would you liked to have been governor of a state that had eight hurricanes and four tropical storms, $100 billion of insured losses and billions of dollars of uninsured losses over 17 months? For me, it was the greatest joy of service that I could ever imagine. ...

"That's when we show what kind of leaders we are."

Bush will commemorate the storms at a town hall-style campaign event Wednesday in Pensacola. Even Floridians may need reminding of the storms Bush weathered: A Quinnipiac University poll published last week showed Bush trailing Donald Trump in Bush's home state.

Bush's ability to take charge in an emergency remains undisputed even among his critics, who note he left the Governor's Mansion 15 months after the last storm with a 64-percent approval rating.

"His popularity with Floridians is probably tethered to those moments probably more than any policy," said Democrat Dan Gelber, a former Miami Beach state senator.

The Bush hurricane legacy is complicated by inevitable comparisons to how his brother, President George W. Bush, botched the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina after it hit Gulf Coast states.

At the time, the governor defended his brother. Yet it hardly went unnoticed when the man President Barack Obama picked to be at the helm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency was a veteran of a different Bush's administration: Craig Fugate had been Florida's state emergency management chief under Jeb.

As governor, Bush's first big storm loomed in 1999, when Hurricane Floyd prompted the evacuation of more than a million people. Floyd veered north and missed the state, but it served as a warning: Evacuees got stuck on jammed highways, finding few open shelters.

Bush created more shelters by allowing universities, community colleges and other buildings to receive the designation. He put $14 million in federal, state and local funds toward improving existing shelters. His administration unveiled FloridaDisaster.org, a comprehensive website showing shelter availability and evacuation orders.

After Hurricane Irene in 1999 and a no-name storm in 2000 flooded much of Southwest Miami-Dade, Bush recognized what he called a "systemic" problem.

"He sat at our table and said, 'What can I do as governor to make this better?' " recalled Chuck Lanza, Miami-Dade's emergency manager from 1995-2003. Local administrators presented a list of $200 million in flood-control projects. "We said, 'If we can get these projects taken care of, we won't have these problems again.' And he said, 'I'll take care of it.' "

He followed through. Federal, state and city dollars paid for new pumps, wider canals and redesigned canal banks. Water stopped flowing into the streets. "I give him 100 percent credit for that," Lanza said.

In 2004 came what a state meteorologist called "our nightmare scenario": Hurricane Charley barreled into Florida's Gulf Coast, where many people had never experienced a hurricane. Charley approached as a Category 2 — then strengthened at the last minute to a Category 4.

Bush's deputy chief of staff, Deirdre Finn, delivered the grim forecast: "The governor pushed his glasses down and he said: 'What happened to Category 3?' "

It was the strongest hurricane to hit Florida since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, a Category 5 beast that Bush lived through in Miami. Andrew forced Bush to cancel a Central Florida swing with dad's running mate, Dan Quayle, to board his house and — along with his wife, three children, mother-in-law and two Secret Service agents — rode out the storm at the Kendall home of the late Republican real-estate broker Carlos Salman. At one point, the house shaking, everyone took refuge in a hallway.

With that in mind, Gov. Bush urged about 1.4 million people to evacuate before Charley. He ordered the National Guard to move into Tampa. The day after the storm, Bush made his way to Punta Gorda.

"There was not even a question that he shouldn't go," Finn said. "When he came back, he was changed. I didn't know him that well. But the destruction was so bad. He told people it shook him."

Twenty-three days later came Hurricane Frances. Eleven days after that: Ivan. Ten days later: Jeanne. Four major hurricanes in 44 days. Every corner of the state was affected. (Bush invoked the movie Groundhog Day.)

After Frances, which was so large it covered nearly the entire state, Bush toured the damaged Treasure Coast along with his brother. They handed out water, ice and food in Fort Pierce, as Ivan whirled in the Atlantic.

"I do believe in the power of prayer," Jeb Bush said, pulling a rosary out of his pocket. He told staff and traveling reporters he'd charge them $5 per violation if they uttered Ivan's name. "Blank, the terrible," he called it.

By then, Bush's team had developed a hurricane routine. Agency heads talked about preparedness at weekly meetings with the governor, said José Abreu, then Department of Transportation secretary.

"He was a hands-on CEO," Abreu said. Once the Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee opened, administrators arrived, clad in polo shirts, to work the "war room" with the governor. "When I got there really early, he was there. And when I left to try to get a cheeseburger, he was still there," Abreu said. "There was just no question who the field marshal was."

Ahead of Ivan, Abreu moved divers from as far south as Miami to the Panhandle, ready to inspect the I-10 Escambia Bay bridge's underwater foundations post-hurricane. The bridge didn't survive. But the divers helped recover the body of a man who drowned in a truck. And Abreu's team had a repaired bridge in place in 17 days — an engineering feat that saved residents from hours of detours.

"I have never been prouder to be governor of Florida," Bush said once the 2004 season ended.

The respite was short. Tropical Storm Arlene arrived in June 2005. What'd Bush think upon learning of the forecast? "I can't repeat what I said," he told reporters at the time. " 'Gosh darnit.' "

Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma followed, about a month apart from July to October. Only with Wilma — the last storm under Bush's watch — was the state's response sluggish. Some distribution sites in Miami-Dade and Broward counties ran out of ice and water. Though local officials who shouldered some of the responsibility pointed fingers at federal authorities, Bush laid the blame on himself, saying the state underestimated demand.

Bush later testified to Congress that emergency management should remain a state responsibility. And he continued to preach his mantra of personal responsibility in storm prep.

"It makes it a lot harder when people line up in their Lexuses or Mercedes to get ice and water at a public distribution site when the Publix is open a block away," Bush said in 2006.

After the storms, Bush asked for $600 million in federal and state money for property owners to storm-proof their homes. He signed laws requiring generators for gas stations and high-rise condominiums, and undoing building-code exemptions he had allowed half a decade earlier that had left the Panhandle vulnerable. He pressed grocery stores to get generators and utility companies to overhaul an aging power grid.

Far less popular was his attempt to stabilize the insurance market. After the storms, carriers limited their windstorm coverage and dramatically hiked rates; the controversial law Republican legislators passed and Bush signed allowed further increases that private insurers argued were necessary for their business to recover. The first thing incoming GOP Gov. Charlie Crist did in 2007 — backed by Republicans and Democrats — was to freeze the rates, relying on the state insurer of last resort, Citizens Property Insurance, to pick up more and more policies as private carriers fled the state.

"Jeb reflexively trusts the market and wants no government involvement, and the result: We had really massive increases in property insurance," said Gelber, the former Democratic Senate leader. "He was good with hurricanes — and terrible with hurricane insurance."

Bush angered moderates with his approach to insurance rates after the storms — and then managed to offend conservatives by advocating for a national catastrophe fund to protect Florida and other states from disaster losses. While popular among Florida Republicans, the idea has been rebuffed repeatedly in Washington.

"There are a lot more states that are not hurricane-prone than states that are," said Christian Cámara, state director in Tallahassee for the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank that opposes a "nat cat" fund. "Representatives from states that are not prone to disasters are not going to be voting for something that puts their taxpayers on the hook."

Bush had a hard time getting even his brother to help.

In a Sept. 26, 2006, email titled "Per your recent conversation with the president," Maggie White of the White House Intergovernmental Affairs office asked Bush to call her.

"Governor: I would greatly appreciate 5-10 minutes of your time to discuss in greater detail your thoughts/ideas regarding a federal backstop for catastrophic insurance," she wrote. "You have peaked (sic) the President's interest and he has asked Al Hubbard and I put a paper together on the subject."

"I will call you tomorrow," Bush responded.

His brother never created the fund.

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