Richard Conley was corralling his cat Marley into a carrier and loading his car with essentials when a highway patrol officer arrived on his doorstep in Cedar Key around noon Aug. 29.
The officer asked if Conley, a professor of political science at UF, was following Gov. Ron DeSantis’ mandatory evacuation order for Levy County ahead of Hurricane Idalia.
“Nobody can force you to leave your home, but it's kind of silly to stay, especially with something like this when you know it's coming,” he said.
Within the hour, Conley was driving to the panhandle to stay in a camper.
Hurricane Idalia, a Category 3 storm, swept through Florida's Big Bend region last week, causing significant damage to many coastal communities like Cedar Key and Perry.
DeSantis, who announced his candidacy for president May 24, put his campaign on hold to focus on the storm’s impact on Florida. He held 16 press briefings or live-streamed updates throughout the week and issued mandatory evacuations for 46 counties, including Alachua, Levy and Citrus counties.
Recent national polls show DeSantis with roughly 18% of voter support for the Republican nomination, making him a distant runner-up to former President Trump. As the 2024 presidential election nears, DeSantis along with seven other GOP candidates are trying their best to steal Trump’s lead and score the Republican party nomination.
DeSantis’ hurricane response might not give him a national boost in Republican polls for his presidential campaign, but it does demonstrate his ability to lead during a disaster, Conley said.
“If DeSantis had gone ahead and gone campaigning and just left all of us, I think Floridians would be mad,” he said.
Leading one of the largest states through a hurricane offers DeSantis an opportunity to gain voters’ favor, Conley said.
“But does that really parlay into something that will get voters elsewhere outside of Florida on board with this campaign, especially since Trump has such a commanding lead?” he said.
At a press conference for the storm in Tallahassee Aug. 30, DeSantis listed off eight urban search and rescue teams, 33 ambulance strike teams, 5,500 National Guards and Coast Guard on standby. There were also more than 30,000 linemen stationed, 1,100 generators prepared for traffic regulation and 1.2 million gallons of fuel staged, DeSantis added.
“We just hope everybody stays safe,” he said during the conference. “Don’t put your life at risk by doing anything dumb at this point.”
In the aftermath of the storm, DeSantis has traveled to Taylor, Levy, Madison and Suwannee counties to distribute food to residents and meet with first responders and linemen for recovery efforts. More than 220,000 meals, 150,000 water bottles and 3,000 tarps have been distributed to the state’s nine different Points of Distribution, according to the governor’s website.
DeSantis announced that 13 counties will receive help from the Major Disaster Declaration for Hurricane Idalia, which reimburses debris removal and authorizes individual assistance for residents. President Joe Biden approved the plan for Levy, Lafayette, Citrus, Dixie, Hamilton, Colombia, Gilchrist, Hernando, Jefferson, Madison, Pasco, Suwannee and Taylor counties.
Tim Marden, a city commissioner for Newberry and chairman of the Alachua County Republican Party, said Florida’s government has spent decades revising hurricane response and preparedness, so DeSantis won’t hold a national spotlight for long over a disaster response that feels routine.
“There's all sorts of opportunities to fail,” Marden said. “There's really few opportunities left to really rise to the occasion and really be a champion for recovery.”
To Marden, DeSantis did what he was supposed to as Florida’s sitting governor, and if anything, recovery efforts could paint him as a hero.
“In the world of politics, you get very good at making good things out of bad situations,” Marden said.
Danielle Hawk, chair of the Alachua County Democratic Party’s Outreach Committee, said DeSantis has neglected his commitment to Florida since he announced his presidential candidacy.
“Governor Ron DeSantis fortunately decided to take a short break from his failing
presidential campaign to come home during a crisis,” Hawk wrote in an email. “Thankfully, President Joe Biden was ready to step in by offering our state additional funding to rebuild our communities.”
Biden arrived at the Gainesville Regional Airport Sept. 2 to assess hurricane damage throughout the state. DeSantis didn’t confirm plans to meet with the president. DeSantis’ spokesperson Jeremy Redfern said a meeting between the president and governor would take time away from recovery efforts.
Hawk said the Alachua County Democratic Party hopes DeSantis “stops playing politics” and accepts resources from the Biden-Harris Administration.
Julia Ferenac, a 20-year-old UF business administration junior, said the government’s disaster response is a non-partisan job obligation that was upheld during Hurricane Idalia.
“I don't typically agree with the state of Florida’s politics, but with hurricane response, [DeSantis] declared a state of emergency, he had evacuation in effect for the right counties but also not for every single county,” she said.
It is DeSantis’ job as the governor to look after the state, Ferenac said, even if that means putting his presidential campaign on the back burner. However, to gain support from potential voters, she doesn’t think the hurricane will do much to help his platform. Voting comes down to politics and policies, not natural disasters, she said.
“The political climate of the U.S. is so polarized right now that things like [the hurricane] are not what's going to change peoples’ minds,” Ferenac said.
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Sophia Bailly is a second-year journalism major and covers politics for the enterprise desk. Some of her favorite things include The Beatles, croissants and Agatha Christie books. When she's not writing stories she's either reading or going for a run.