President Joe Biden arrived early Wednesday afternoon in Fort Myers to survey damage inflicted on Southwest Florida by Hurricane Ian, get a briefing on the response and recovery efforts, and meet with people impacted by the storm.
“I wanted to tell you in person that we’re thinking of you and we’re not leaving. We’re not leaving until this gets done. I promise you that,” the president said at Fishermans Wharf in Fort Myers.
Biden arrived on Air Force One about 12:40 p.m. After a few minutes on the tarmac — where he was met by a group of first responders, mostly firefighters, and two local elected officials — the president and first lady Jill Biden boarded Marine One to survey storm-ravaged areas via helicopter, joined by Lee County Commission Chairman Cecil Pendergrass.
After the helicopter tour, the Bidens went to Fishermans Wharf in Fort Myers, where they were greeted by Gov. Ron DeSantis and his spouse, Casey DeSantis.
The group moved into the wharf, where Biden, DeSantis and their wives spoke with people the White House said were affected residents. They’re at The Dixie Fish Co., which started in the 1930s as a place for buying and selling the day’s catch. It is now a restaurant. As they ended their conversation, the president gave one of the women a hug from the side, putting his arm around her shoulders.
Biden said the recovery wouldn’t be over in days or weeks; it will take months or years. “The only thing I can assure you is that the federal government will be here until it’s finished,” he said.
Biden’s personal meetings — with residents and business owners affected by Hurricane Ian, plus crews working on rescues, restoring power, distributing food and water and removing debris — represent one of the most important parts of a president’s job: serving as the nation’s consoler-in-chief.
While in Florida, Biden will announce a doubling of the time — to 60 days from 30 days — that the federal government will pick up 100% of costs for search and rescue, sheltering, feeding and other emergency measures to save lives, the White House said Wednesday.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters during a briefing on Air Force One that there isn’t yet a cost estimate for the previously authorized or newly expanded assistance.
“We are still very much in the life-saving and stabilization mode. They are just beginning the assessments of what the actual extent of damage is to the infrastructure. It’s going to be in the billions. How many billions? I don’t know yet. But it will certainly be in the billions. And perhaps one of the more costly disasters that we’ve seen in many years,” Criswell said.
“The funds are going to be there for as long as we need to support (efforts in Florida),” Criswell said.
Inevitably, there’s also a political dimension.
The interaction between the president and DeSantis will be analyzed. The Republican governor is a fierce critic of the Democratic president, though he has temporarily paused his attacks on Biden as Ian threatened, then slammed the state. It’s in both men’s interest to avoid appearing overtly political, and instead show they’re acting in the public interest.
“Thanks to President Biden” and the administration for their support, DeSantis said as he began the briefing at Fishermans Wharf. He said the state was “fortunate” to have such good cooperation from the White House and FEMA even before the storm hit Florida.
Hurricane Ian marks the second time that DeSantis — a possible candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination — has muted his criticism of Biden. The first time was in the aftermath of the 2021 collapse of the Champlain Towers South Condominium in Surfside. When Biden visited Surfside in the aftermath of that disaster, DeSantis sat respectfully at a Biden-run meeting of federal, state and local officials.
It isn’t clear just how much time the president and governor will spend together. “We know that the governor has a busy schedule as he is dealing with the aftermath of a catastrophic storm,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday, adding that she couldn’t “speak specifically to where he’s going to be at every step of the day.”
Jean-Pierre said the president’s visit would be “above politics.”
“When it comes to delivering and making sure that the people of Florida have what they need, especially after Hurricane Ian, we are one — we are working as one. And so that is what the president is going to be doing when he’s there in Florida,” Jean-Pierre said, adding she expected Biden and DeSantis to talk about “what else are the needs in Florida to get to a place of recovery, to get to a place of rebuilding.”
Pendergrass, the Lee County Commission chairman who accompanied Biden on Marine One, is a Republican, as is U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds, who greeted Biden at the airport. Republican U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott were also at Fishermans Wharf.
As the presidential motorcade traveled from the airport to Fishermans Wharf, onlookers held up cellphones to take pictures. Reporters traveling with the president reported some held up their middle fingers.
The Florida trip comes two days after Biden visited Puerto Rico to inspect damage inflicted by Hurricane Fiona.
Lee County has been hardest hit by the hurricane. Of 105 deaths reported as of Wednesday morning, 55 are from Lee County.
Nearly 4,000 federal personnel are on the ground helping with storm recovery efforts, Jean-Pierre said.
“Even before Hurricane Ian made landfall, President Biden approved the state’s disaster declaration request and directed his team to mobilize federal resources to help Florida prepare for the storm. And every day since President Biden has directed his entire administration to prioritize life-saving actions and ensure delivery of essentials services and support to survivors,” Jean-Pierre said.
At a news conference before Biden arrived, DeSantis said people in Florida “appreciate the White House declared this very quickly."
At a news conference in Matlacha before the president's arrival, DeSantis announced that the bridge that serves as a critical link between Pine Island and the mainland had been repaired and would be reopening earlier than expected.
He didn’t mention the president at his event, but DeSantis said in the last two days he’s toured Pine Island and Sanibel on the ground, and repeatedly said that gives a much better sense of the storm’s effects than flying over.
“You go over these things in a helicopter, it’s just not the same thing as being on the ground,” DeSantis said.
“I think we have a chance to bounce back a lot quicker than people think,” DeSantis said. “Usually government will promise and under deliver. Well, here’s an over-delivering.”
Presidential actions in the aftermath of a storm are remembered — especially when they don’t go well.
Examples are legion.
Former President George W. Bush later conceded that his administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was a low point of his presidency. He was panned for a decision to fly over New Orleans, Gulfport, Biloxi and Mobile, viewing damage from Air Force One instead of visiting in the immediate aftermath, and was pilloried for praising his Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator with the words “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” The performance of then-FEMA Administrator Michael Brown was widely condemned as ineffective.
Then-President Donald Trump was widely criticized for tossing paper towels into a crowd as he handed out supplies in Puerto Rico on Oct. 3, 2017, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
By contrast, Bush was praised for rallying the nation when he stood on rubble to speak after the 2001 terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers in New York.
Post-disaster presidential visits can have other political consequences, including when then-President Barack Obama visited New Jersey in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, just before the president’s reelection.
He was embraced by the state’s then-Republican governor, Chris Christie. The image of the two men together became a political albatross around Christie — even used in attack ads against him — as he unsuccessfully sought the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.