MEXICO BEACH — On his first full day in office, Gov. Ron DeSantis walked among the ruins of a seaside town devastated by Hurricane Michael.
Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey told him that $25 million had already been spent on debris cleanup, but an outsider would hardly know it.
At one stop on the governor's tour, the sea breeze was no match for the smell of raw sewage from the city's damaged sewer system. Homes reduced to mounds of rubble were still waiting to be picked up. More than two dozen ovens and refrigerators were stacked just a few feet from the city's white sand beach.
"You knew that it got whacked, when you looked at the pictures," DeSantis said later. "But when you're actually there and see the concrete slabs where the homes used to be — really, really devastating."
It was DeSantis' first trip to Mexico Beach, which took a direct hit from the historic October storm, and he vowed to stay committed to the devastated area.
"Yeah, everyone was talking about it in October — we all brought supplies and everything — but what can tend to happen is people act like they don't need to really worry about that anymore," DeSantis told reporters at the city hall in Mexico Beach, which escaped serious damage. "Well, this is something that I realize is a long-term effort, so I wanted to stand here today and just let people know that we're in it for the long haul."
DeSantis and his wife, Casey, both in blue jeans and black windbreakers, met with the mayor and city staff Wednesday afternoon, then drove around the city for nearly an hour.
Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and DeSantis' pick to lead the Division of Emergency Management, Jared Moskowitz, went with them.
At one stop, overlooking a canal filled with debris and abandoned powerboats, Cathey told him the $25 million in debris cleanup was monstrous compared to the city's $3.5 million annual budget.
DeSantis just shook his head and said, "Wow."
He asked what else the city needs, and Cathey said he needed to immediately receive disaster money, rather than paying for it up front and billing the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Its website was down Wednesday because of the federal shutdown.
"We need up-front money to operate," Cathey told him. "That's our biggest obstacle, is money."
Other cities and counties have also complained about the slow rate of disaster reimbursement, which is emptying their reserves and leaving them vulnerable to future storms. DeSantis said he would work on that.
"We realize the financial stress, and that's something that I've told my team we need to figure out," he said.
But he remained optimistic that Mexico Beach's economy would eventually recover.
"You can't look at that vista and not see that this would be a good place to be," he said.