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Biden tours Hurricane Idalia damage in Florida; no meeting with Gov. DeSantis

Idalia made landfall as a Category 3 storm in the state Wednesday, bringing powerful winds, relentless rain and devastating storm surge to Florida’s Big Bend.
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President Joe Biden on Saturday toured the damage left behind in Florida by Hurricane Idalia.

Biden and first lady Jill Biden landed in Gainesville on Saturday afternoon and took an aerial tour of the damage on their way to Live Oak in Suwanee County. Their first stop was Suwanee Pineview Elementary School, which is being used as a Red Cross shelter.

Biden was briefed about recovery efforts and met with local officials, including Republican Sen. Rick Scott, as well as first responders and storm survivors.

President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks at FEMA headquarters in Washington on Thursday.Yuri Gripas / Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

"All the officials from Florida, we want to thank them," Biden said after the tour, the briefing and the meetings. "Folks who ran toward danger instead of away from the danger when the storm came and hit. It meant a lot."

He vowed to approve any requests from the state for federal recovery resources and urged Congress to ensure funding is available for this and future disasters.

"Your nation has your back and will be with you until the job is done," Biden said.

Idalia made landfall in the state Wednesday as a Category 3 hurricane, bringing powerful winds, relentless rain and devastating storm surge to Florida’s Big Bend.

On Saturday afternoon, Biden praised the cooperative storm response by ordinary Floridians, saying, “The spirit of this community is remarkable.”

“When people are in real trouble, the most important thing you can give them is hope,” he said. “There’s no hope like your neighbor walking across the street to see what they can do for you.”

Biden did not see the Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a 2024 presidential candidate, who suggested a meeting could hinder disaster response efforts.

“We don’t have any plans for the Governor to meet with the President tomorrow,” Jeremy Redfern, press secretary for the Florida governor’s office, said in a statement Friday.

“In these rural communities, and so soon after impact, the security preparations alone that would go into setting up such a meeting would shut down ongoing recovery efforts,” he added.

Biden’s visit could be overtaken by politics given that DeSantis’ statement came hours after Biden said he would be meeting with him.

Biden said Saturday afternoon he was not disappointed that DeSantis did not meet him.

"He may have had other reasons," Biden said in response to a reporter’s question. "But he did help us plan this. He sat with FEMA and decided where we should go, where would be the least disruption."

In response to the announcement by DeSantis’ office, White House spokeswoman Emilie Simons said in a statement that Biden’s visit was “planned in close coordination” with Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel, “as well as state and local leaders to ensure there is no impact on response operations.”

The political disconnect between the sides is a break from the recent past — Biden and DeSantis met when Biden toured Florida after Hurricane Ian hit the state last year and after the Surfside condo collapse in Miami Beach in summer 2021. But DeSantis is now running to unseat Biden, and he only left the Republican presidential primary trail with Idalia barreling toward his state.

Putting aside political rivalries after natural disasters can be tricky.

Another 2024 Republican presidential candidate, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has long been widely criticized in GOP circles for embracing President Barack Obama during a tour of the damage Hurricane Sandy did to his state in 2012. Christie was even asked about the incident last month during the first Republican presidential primary debate.

Biden and DeSantis at first suggested that helping storm victims would outweigh partisan differences. But DeSantis began suggesting that a presidential trip would complicate response logistics as the week wore on.

“There’s a time and a place to have political season,” DeSantis said before Idalia made landfall. “But then there’s a time and a place to say that this is something that’s life-threatening, this is something that could potentially cost somebody their life, it could cost them their livelihood.”

By Friday, DeSantis was telling reporters of Biden that “one thing I did mention to him on the phone” was “it would be very disruptive to have the whole security apparatus that goes” with the president, “because there are only so many ways to get into” many of the hardest-hit areas.

“What we want to do is make sure that the power restoration continues and the relief efforts continue and we don’t have any interruption in that,” DeSantis said.

Biden joked as he delivered pizzas to workers at FEMA’s Washington headquarters Thursday that he had spoken to DeSantis so frequently about Idalia that “there should be a direct dial” between the pair. Homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall pointed to the experiences after Ian and the Surfside collapse in saying this week that Biden and DeSantis “are very collegial when we have the work to do together of helping Americans in need, citizens of Florida in need.”

The post-Idalia political consequences are high for both men.

As Biden seeks re-election, the White House has asked for an additional $4 billion to address natural disasters as part of its supplemental funding request to Congress. That would bring the total to $16 billion and highlight that wildfires, flooding and hurricanes have intensified during a period of climate change, imposing ever higher costs on U.S. taxpayers.

"I’m calling on the United States Congress, Democrats and Republicans, to make sure the funding is there to deal with the immediate crisis, as well as our long-term commitments to the safety of the American people," Biden said Saturday afternoon in Florida.

DeSantis has built his White House bid around dismantling what he calls Democrats’ “woke” policies. He also frequently draws applause at GOP rallies by declaring that it’s time to send “Joe Biden back to his basement,” a reference to Biden’s Delaware home, where he spent much of his time during the early lockdowns of the coronavirus pandemic.

But four months before the first ballots are to be cast in Iowa’s caucuses, DeSantis still lags far behind former President Donald Trump, the Republican primaries’ dominant early front-runner. And he has cycled through repeated campaign leadership shakeups and reboots of his image to refocus his message.

The super PAC supporting DeSantis’ candidacy also has halted its door-knocking operations in Nevada, which votes third on the Republican presidential primary calendar, and in several states holding Super Tuesday primaries in March — a further sign of trouble.