As Florida faced down the second-most-powerful hurricane recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, the state’s new governor also faced his first big test.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis took a measured approach and deliberately pivoted from the centralized message-making of his Republican predecessor, winning praise from local officials and emergency managers across the state.
“I was dazzled,’’ said Marty Senterfitt, emergency management director for Monroe County, who spent the weekend working out of the state’s command center. He said he had a chance to watch DeSantis and Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez as they worked with emergency professionals coordinating the state’s response to Hurricane Dorian.
He said DeSantis was prepared — having read the 300-page state emergency operations plan.
“He read it one time and memorized it, I think,’’ Senterfitt said. And DeSantis applied his former Naval officer training to understanding the chain of command to facilitate communication between local and state officials.
“He literally leans forward and coaches and then lets the decision be made at the local level,’’ Senterfitt said.
As the storm approached, DeSantis increased public access to information on nursing homes and assisted living facilities, a deliberate attempt to restore trust in state oversight after 12 people died at a Hollywood Hills nursing home in the wake of Hurricane Irma two years ago.
He opened routine emergency operations center briefings to the media, allowed key agency heads and staff to answer questions, and in what DeSantis said would be his most important focus going forward, he let the public know that key decisions — such as when to evacuate people from harm’s way — would be the job of local emergency operations officials.
“What we were doing is we’re consulting with the locals,’’ DeSantis said Tuesday at his daily media briefing at the state’s command center. “I can sit here and say whatever I want, but if the local folks haven’t bought into it, I don’t think it will be effective.’’
When DeSantis activated the state command center in Tallahassee last week, Hurricane Dorian threatened to batter most of Florida’s east coast by Tuesday. Forecasts had so much of the state in its path that DeSantis sought a federal emergency declaration for the entire state.
By Tuesday, the monster storm that stalled over the Bahamas for nearly two days causing massive destruction, had weakened and moved northward. Florida exhaled.
“We are truly breathing a sign of relief,’’ said Bertha Henry, Broward county administrator.
Henry, and other South Florida emergency operations experts, said they were impressed with DeSantis’ calm demeanor and the emphasis he placed on urging people to heed the advice of their local emergency officials.
“From our perspective, things went very smoothly with the coordination between the state and local community,’’ she said.
“Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach are huge economic drivers with all the hotels that we have on the coast of Florida, so how and when you evacuate and what kind of procedures you use to keep them informed so they know we’re not crying wolf, is important. “
DeSantis said that he was aware the impact evacuation orders can have on people’s lives and did not want to “do it willy nilly and create a lot of chaos and panic.”
He referred to Hurricane Irma in 2017, when then-Gov. Rick Scott repeatedly appeared on television and urged people to “go now,” days before Category 4 Hurricane Irma made landfall near Cudjoe Key.
As the storm barreled toward Florida, Scott amped up his evacuation message, warning that Irma was “bigger than our entire state.” By the time Irma’s course shifted toward Florida’s west coast, roadways were already jammed, hotels packed and gas stations faced fuel shortages.
The state’s Division of Emergency Management estimated that more than 6.5 million Floridians evacuated their homes, and when it was time for them to return, as the state’s rivers were flooding, I-75 and I-95 were gridlocked.
Learning from the past
DeSantis made it clear Tuesday he had learned from Irma’s lesson.
“I think there has been frustration in the past when people were kind of crisscrossing the state’’ he said, with some people “evacuating into the storm path because they were told to evacuate at a certain time.”
Instead, he said, his approach is to treat storm response as a “bottom up effort and it really starts with the counties.”
“The folks at the local emergency operations level, they are very good at what they do particularly on the coastal counties,’’ he said. “... So my view is let’s harness that experience.”
Frank Rollason, Miami-Dade County’s emergency operations director, said DeSantis has “been refreshing in a lot of things — not just how he’s handled hurricanes.’’
“He has been more supportive of emergency managers at the state level and brought people in with more expertise,’’ Rollason said. The result, he said, is “it’s been a calmer time and there’s a lot of information flowing between us.”
“You can’t have the state striking fear into the hearts of all those people and us not doing anything,’’ Rollason said.
“I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus,’’ he said, but in the past some administrations allowed people in Tallahassee to “overshadow others and not follow process. We have an incredible plan, and it’s all about process.”
In addition to more collaboration and communication with counties, Emergency Operations Director Jared Moskowitz, a former Broward state legislator, said the state has also revised several policies.
During Irma in 2017, the state ran short of beds at special needs shelters. This year, instead of waiting until the storm approached to fill warehouses in Central Florida, Moskowitz said they put a priority on buying supplies in advance. The state also signed contracts for pumps to clear water from flooded roadways, and then deployed them to targeted areas before the storm.
“The plan is to have our logistics pre-placed where we anticipate the problems to be,’’ he said. “The whole idea is to acquire those commodities earlier and, while it means we’re spending money, it also means we’re better prepared to respond.”
Checking on nursing homes
With the memory of a dozen nursing home deaths after Hurricane Irma still fresh, the state Agency for Health Care Administration has also changed how it informs the public. It has rolled out a new website that allows the public to check the status of generators at nursing homes and assisted living facilities licensed by the state.
AHCA Secretary Mary Mayhew also promised that her agency and the state’s health department would do checks on facilities before and after the storm.
And DeSantis — unlike Scott, who gave his cell phone number to nursing home administrators and told them to call him if there was an emergency — urged facilities to keep updating state health officials first through an emergency status system with their current conditions.
DeSantis also ended the Scott administration practice of denying the media access to routine briefings at the state Emergency Operations Center.
During Hurricanes Irma and Michael, reporters spent hours in the state emergency operations center but were not allowed to hear the updates as subject-matter experts reported progress on distribution of supplies, road conditions, shelters, flooding and road closures.
Scott’s office cited “security concerns” and insisted that all information be routed through them. Scott became the lone voice in speaking for state officials.
By contrast, DeSantis opened the briefings, allowed his staff to answer questions for local officials and allowed people other than the governor to conduct interviews with the media.
“The communication was very open,’’ said Henry, the Broward county administrator. “I had personal cell phone [numbers] and had to use them — and they responded.’’
Working with Rubio
DeSantis said he is also working with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio on an issue that became a bottleneck under the Scott administration: delivering federal disaster aid to counties to reimburse them for their storm-related costs.
He said Moskowitz has streamlined the process so the state no longer holds the money without delivering it to the counties. In the last six months, counties have received $203 million in federal aid for Hurricane Michael and $500 million for Hurricane Irma.
DeSantis said he and Rubio will be working with the Trump administration “to basically provide the reimbursements” at an even faster pace. He added that if counties get repaid quickly, “that sends a good message to be prepared.”
On a call with lawmakers Tuesday afternoon, Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature praised DeSantis and his staff for being responsive.
“It’s been remarkable, given what I saw two years ago,” said Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican from Palm Bay.
Fine, whose district is along Dorian’s path, told the Herald/Times that each of the Cabinet officers called him asking him if he needs anything.
“I did not get a call from any of the constitutional officers two years ago,” he said.
He said Scott did not do a bad job as governor, but the hurricane has emphasized their different management styles.
DeSantis, who spent five years in Congress, understands what it’s like to be a legislator, he said. Scott, a former hospital CEO, governed like one.
“He’s used to being a CEO and telling people what to do,” Fine said.
Times/Herald staff writers Lawrence Mower and Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.