In early March of 2011, a debate raged inside the Executive Office of the Governor over whether the governor should continue with a Visit Florida trip, or return home to deal with a raging wildfire along I-95.
There were other considerations as well: the governor’s poll numbers. In only a few months, we’d watched his approval rating hold steady – but upside down – nobody liked the governor’s recently released budget proposals. A natural disaster – even a wildfire – presented an opportunity because voters are unified in their opposition to property damage and loss of life. Unlike the political back-and-forth in the legislature over budget numbers, this wildfire presented a chance to show the governor as a man of action and a leader.
A handful of us stood just outside a conference room to make the decision: The governor’s chief of staff, Mike Prendergast, his policy chief, Mary Anne Carter, Spencer Geissinger, who would have to handle the logistics of bringing the governor home and coordinating the visit to the wildfire site, Rick Swearingen, who handled the governor’s security detail, and me, responsible for communications and media.
Prendergast, a former military officer, understood the dangers, and was perhaps the most comfortable of the group in a potential crisis. Mary Anne Carter, or MAC, as we called her, knew there were political considerations, too, especially with the legislative session soon to reach full swing. She demurred. Geissenger had been through Katrina. He knew the potential dangers. In a previous email, he’d written to me:
“If he is in DC with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck standing behind him while talking about tourism as the state is burning, he could look out of touch. We should be very cautious here. These events can spiral out of control quickly and once they do, you cannot regain control.”
Ultimately, the group decided this was as much a communications decision as it was anything else. I turned to Swearingen, who, aside from Prendergast, was the only long-time Floridian in the huddle. He shook his head.
“Wildfires are a dime a dozen in Florida. They’re always burning somewhere,” he said. “Wait for hurricane season.”
We followed Swearingen’s advice, and the tour continued without incident. The wildfire died out, new ones sprung up that year, and fortunately, the hurricanes never came. From 2011 through earlier this year, Rick Scott has not had to respond to any serious hurricane damage in the state.
That is, until this year. Already battered by the Category 1 Hermine making a direct hit on the state’s capital city, Governor Rick Scott and Florida’s emergency managers are being put to the test.
Hurricane Matthew, with it’s 125+ mile per hour winds, and a storm track that looks destined to rip up the entire east coast of the state, will almost certainly be the biggest challenge the governor will face during his two terms in office. Floridians can rest assured that he will meticulously follow whatever plans our state’s emergency managers have drawn up.
But given the track of the storm, and its uncertain path over the weekend, Matthew may have more surprises in store than emergency planners expect.
Buckle in, eastern and central Florida, and stay safe. My prayers are with you, our emergency personnel, our community leaders, and our governor.