Gov. Rick Scott trudged down the street, through mud and tree branches, around disconnected power lines, surveying the damage that the first hurricane to hit Florida in 11 years caused in the capital city.
“You doing OK?” he called out to a man clearing debris from his yard before stopping to chat with him about Hurricane Hermine.
It was an unrehearsed and unscripted moment Friday, unlike the staged — and sometimes stilted — photo ops and news conferences for which Scott is known.
“I ran on getting our state back to work and back to jobs, and there’s so many things that have happened since then that are totally different,” Scott said. “There’s so many issues you don’t even think about when you decide to run for governor.”
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It’s been a crisis-filled summer for the jobs governor. In June, he rushed to Orlando after the largest mass shooting in modern American history. In recent weeks, he’s visited numerous counties and cities staving off concerns about a Zika outbreak. The capper came Friday, when Scott responded to his first hurricane in nearly six years in office.
Like with the Pulse shooting and Zika, Scott aimed to look in control while conducting a massive public awareness effort about the looming threat.
On Twitter and at briefings with emergency officials before Hermine made landfall, Scott gave an ominous warning: “This is life-threatening.”
Managing a crisis successfully can have an upside. Jeb Bush, the last Florida governor to weather a hurricane, left office with an approval rating of 64 percent. That was due, in part, to Bush’s sure-footed response to the nine hurricanes during his time in office.
Bush displayed a command of the storms by developing a routine, where agency heads regularly talked about preparedness at daily meetings with the governor. Scott, this week, followed that example.
Typically Scott’s daily schedule is a blank slate, bereft of who he’s meeting with or what he’s doing. Not so this week. His call logs show phone calls with sheriffs and elected officials in the counties threatened by the storm. Usually averse to mingling with reporters, Scott invited them to tag along Friday and Saturday as he walked the humid streets of Tallahassee to meet homeowners clearing fallen trees.
The response has been effective, said Sen. Bill Montford, a Democrat who represents 11 counties impacted by the storm.
“He’s been one of the most engaged governors that I’ve had the pleasure to work with,” said Montford. “Quite frankly, he surprised a lot of people. He jumped in with both feet, head-on.”
In 2008, Gov. Charlie Crist was lauded for hunkering down in the Emergency Operations Center as tropical storms Fay, Gustav and Hanna threatened to batter Florida.
Scott followed that example, riding out the storm in Tallahassee, leaving the state EOC late Thursday night to spend the night in the Governor’s Mansion. Scott, who owns an airplane, often travels around the state or stays at his home in Naples. But he stayed in Tallahassee for the worst of the storm.
During the week, Scott appeared live on TV to warn Floridians, each time, from the EOC flanked by members of the Florida National Guard.
As he talked with homeowners Friday, he related his experiences in 1992 with devastating Hurricane Andrew. At the time, Scott owned hospitals in Miami. Andrew forced him to evacuate two of them. These public moments are unusual for a governor who generally sticks to narrow talking points and always seems to be catching his next flight out of town.
During his summer of crisis, cable news networks like Fox News have become Scott’s megaphone, even when he didn’t have new information to provide. Because of widespread damage in the state capital and across the North Florida, he’ll continue to be in the spotlight as the recovery efforts continue.
On Saturday, Scott surveyed damage on the coast in Panacea and Alligator Point. He sounded frustrated as he talked about the delay in restoring power and publicly brought local leaders together with private utility companies to foster cooperation.
Appearing in command is one thing. Providing actual relief is another. And that’ll be Scott’s biggest test in the coming days and weeks.
Bush had a brother in the White House, which made it easy getting federal funding. Scott, by contrast, has long had a contentious relationship with the federal government, which he has sued several times, including over healthcare spending. As of Saturday, President Barack Obama had not called Scott to ask about the state’s response.
It’s too early to ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a disaster declaration, said Bryan Koon, director of the state’s Division of Emergency Management. But it’s likely the state will do so in the days ahead.
Already this summer, Scott has argued with FEMA over disaster requests related to the Orlando shooting and Zika.
The agency hasn’t been part of the federal response to Zika and turned down Scott’s request following the shooting because it “did not demonstrate how the emergency response associated with this situation is beyond the capability of the state and affected local governments,” FEMA administrator and former Florida emergency chief Craig Fugate wrote in a letter.
Hermine falls more squarely in FEMA’s mission of helping communities recover from natural disasters.