Hurricane politics: When Andrew Gillum and Rick Scott clashed

“I’ve been involved in a lot of hurricane restorations … I had never seen politics enter any hurricane restoration until that moment.”

When Hurricane Hermine in 2016 became the first storm to hit Florida in more than a decade, it was atypical in several ways. The Category 1 storm ended a hurricane-free 10 years after the spate of storms in 2004 and 2005.

It also locked onto the state's Big Bend region, which rarely takes the brunt of a hurricane. And despite its relatively weak wind strength, Hermine packed enough punch to knock out power for several days to most of the capital city Tallahassee, then governed by a little-known mayor named Andrew Gillum.

But the slow process of picking up after the storm — often seen in Florida as a test of leadership — was quickly mired in criticism of how long it took to turn power back on. Gillum struggled to weather allegations that the city rejected help from power companies and the state to score political points, and the delays led to a publicized spat between Gillum and Gov. Rick Scott, the man he now hopes to succeed come November.

Now two years later as what remains of Hurricane Florence finally leaves the Carolinas to begin cleaning up, Gillum's experience stands out. The storm's aftermath pitted the young, rising mayor against the state's top politician in a clash that, though it simmered down, left bruises.

"There's been a false narrative created about that incident that's extremely unfortunate," said Barry Moline, then the executive director of the Florida Municipal Electric Association, who helped manage the city's power recovery after the storm. "I've been involved in a lot of hurricane restorations … I had never seen politics enter any hurricane restoration until that moment."

When Hermine reached Tallahassee on Sept. 1, 2016, the storm's 65 mph winds had easy targets in the city's tree-lined roads —branches and foliage took down power to most of Tallahassee for up to a week. Eighty percent of the city's system went dark. More than 75,000 customers of the city's municipal electric system and 20,000 customers of the nearby cooperative electric company, Talquin Electric, lost power.

This was Scott's first hurricane as governor — he'd have another in just a month — but he was familiar with crisis response after the Pulse shooting that June. He set up public meetings with some of the state's largest utilities and local officials to help facilitate power restoration and debris removal. The first meeting, the following night, even included Florida Power & Light CEO Eric Silagy, who flew in at Scott's invitation.

Silagy said the company had requests for help from other areas impact areas in Georgia and the Carolinas, but extended an offer for a few hundred personnel to help restore power in Tallahassee. The city's utilities director, Rob McGarrah, did not accept the offer immediately — in part because the city-run utility already had what it deemed enough mutual aid from other utility companies.

Gillum was at those meetings along with a host of other local officials, Moline said, "mostly to talk about city logistics or county logistics, generators, just bringing in assistance from elsewhere." But Gillum, who does not have a "strong mayor" role in Tallahassee's form of government, "had zero input into the decisions to get more resources or fewer resources … That was between Rob McGarrah and me."

The decision to limit how many outside workers came to help, Moline added, was to ensure that enough of the city's crews would be embedded with those from out of town and make sure they safely repaired the system.

But restoring power to the city dragged on, complicated by the damage Tallahassee's lush tree canopy had done to the power lines. Many of the city's politically connected questioned the delays in turning the lights back on. Reports in the following days that the city had turned down FPL's offer — though it took at least 100 workers from Gulf Power early in the process — fed online criticism that Gillum had rejected the help for political reasons.

The then-linear process of power restoration, starting with main transmission lines that then branched into the arteries of smaller neighborhoods, also meant that those helping with the cleanup around their own homes saw little sign of utility crews in the first days after Hermine passed. Feeding their phones off their car chargers, some residents began to question why the city — and Gillum — had turned down assistance when they didn't see any.

Gillum struggled to push back.

"It appears that the heat has driven some to speculate wildly about what help I have accepted or rejected on behalf of the city in our effort to recuperate from this storm," Gillum later wrote on Facebook. "Some have suggested that I have refused help from any company that is not unionized. Others have stated that I have refused help offered by any Republicans. And still others have suggested a Machiavellian attempt by me to surrender residents to my will by prolonging suffering and delaying any power from being restored — rendering them utterly helpless to my liberal agenda.

"Let me be clear," he said, noting the city had taken help from eight different utility companies from three states to get power back on. "We are happy to accept any help from any person or organization that is going to accelerate the speed at which we can safely restore power to our residents … Too much help at one time may make us feel better, but it can actually slow down progress."

He acknowledged in comments that Tallahassee had been caught somewhat flat-footed by Hermine.

"I agree that there are some updated planning protocols that must be established for addressing these kinds of storms," he told one commenter. "We've not had a good practice run in 30 years (almost the time I've been alive). We'll get better for sure."

But one of the most pointed criticisms came from Scott, who narrowed in on the power restoration process and questioned why the efforts of the city and county had not been better applied.

That Saturday evening, Scott's office had released a statement saying the city had declined assistance from the Florida Department of Transportation and pushed Gillum to accept help from a list of private companies that could help with debris removal that night.

The feud eventually exploded into a brief spat at the local emergency operations center at the end of the weekend, in which Gillum said he was surprised by the press release asserting FDOT help had been rejected "while our people were working side-by-side in the field."

"I'm almost at a loss for words, as to how some of this has gone." Gillum said. "We took a near-direct hit and we're the largest metropolitan area affected by this storm, by tens of thousands."

He said his hope that his government and the Republican governor could work together had "been chipped away, time after time after time, as these comments and press releases and tweets have been put out, in my opinion, to undermine our cooperative process," he said. "We really owe it to them to not be about politics, but to be about getting power to them — 'them' being the people."

Scott fired back: "It's not an issue of working hard … It's an issue of, we've got to get results."

"They pretty much left it there with bruised egos," recalled Moline, who was at the meeting. "They never buried the hatchet — they both had long memories on that."

Scott's office later told the Associated Press the news release suggesting the city had rejected FDOT help was a "misunderstanding," though he told the Times/Herald at the time that "we had more power outages that took longer here than other places."

A post-mortem report of the local hurricane response compiled a month later by a local business group also flagged communication issues from the city and county, though they did not specify Gillum by name.

And during last year's Hurricane Irma, Scott raised the specter of Tallahassee's recovery from Hermine in an interview with Politico: "I figured out with Hermine that the utility industry didn't cooperate. And so now we have daily calls — I'll start them tomorrow, twice a day calls — and so I have a commitment."

"People will have a better idea of how long it's going to take. So by doing that, if you look at [Hurricane] Matthew, how much faster we got power back everywhere in contrast to Tallahassee," he added." I couldn't get them to take resources or anything. Let me tell you, everyone wants my help now."

Gillum said after the spat that "absolutely mistakes have been made" but that the rumors of rejected help were "unwanted distractions."

When Florence drummed into the East Coast late last week, Gillum alluded to lessons learned from his own brush with his first storm in an interview with CNN on what advice he'd give to officials in its path: "Ensure that you aggregate all the help you need on the front end," he said Wednesday. "There are a lot of layers to this thing. Obviously, the first response you want to have in place is for individuals to protect live and to save life to recover folks from danger."

But he also nodded to the political difficulty of managing expectations once the storm had passed.

"There are going to be some difficult days where people are inconvenienced. They won't have power, they'll be inconvenienced by some of the water damage, and that's when folks start to get frustrated," he said. "Help them through that, make sure you've got comfort stations and places where folks can yet again begin to get some relief from the storm."