It blew up off Cuba early Sunday, and suddenly, Florida’s Panhandle is bracing to be slammed by 110 mph winds with Category 3 Hurricane Michael forecast to make landfall Wednesday afternoon near Panama City.
The “October surprise” has suspended campaigning as state and local officials in central and northern Florida try to do what they can to prepare with relatively little warning.
But make no mistake, politics and politicking will be on display as incumbents seize the opportunity to be seen doing what their offices require of them in an emergency.
The two candidates with the most to gain, or lose, by the optics of what will unfold Wednesday, and in the weeks to follow before the Nov. 6 election, are Republican senatorial hopeful Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who can boost his gubernatorial aspirations by leading his city’s preparations and response to the storm.
Scott has donned his Navy cap and is doing all the things a governor needs to do to in the face of an advancing catastrophe. If there is one agreement across the partisan divide about Scott’s eight-year performance as governor, it is that he has handled hurricane emergencies well.
Scott, embroiled in a nip-and-tuck U.S. Senate campaign against three-time Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, has declared a state of emergency for 35 Florida counties from the Panhandle to Tampa Bay, activated 1,250 of Florida National Guard members, authorized the deployment of 100 state troopers and waived tolls to accelerate coastal evacuation.
"Hurricane Michael is a monster storm, and it keeps getting more dangerous," Scott said in a news conference at the state’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Tallahassee on Tuesday. "The time to prepare is now."
Scott, who will be seen often in EOC press conferences in over the next day or so, warned of the potential for a deadly storm surge that could be as much as 12 feet above normal sea water levels.
"No one's going to survive" such a wall of water, he said, noting authorities in at least 20 counties along the 200-mile Panhandle and Big Bend region are ordering the evacuation of 120,000 coastal residents and tourists.
Scott said he has called utilities in the state as well as out-of-state mutual assistance utilities to ensure they are “talking to each other.”
He also warned North Florida hospitals and nursing homes to “take care” of the elderly and infirm, a reference to the 14 people who died when a South Florida nursing home lost power and air conditioning after last September’s Hurricane Irma.
“If you’re responsible for a patient, you’re responsible for the patient,” Scott said.
Meanwhile, Gillum was shoveling sand into bags as Tallahassee prepared for potential flooding while he and his campaign responded to criticism of his past hurricane performances as mayor from Republican gubernatorial challenger Ron DeSantis, and about his city in general from President Donald Trump.
“Today it is about life and safety,” Gillum told reporters as he shoveled sand into bags. “There’s nothing between us and this storm but warm water, and I think that’s what terrifies us about the potential impacts.”
Even before Michael emerged, the DeSantis campaign had been running an ad claiming Gillum refused help for Tallahassee’s damaged electrical grid following Hurricane Hermine in 2016 from outside workers because they weren’t unionized.
Barry Moline, former head of the Florida Municipal Electric Association, told the Sun-Sentinel that he and Tallahassee’s general manager of electric utilities, not Gillum, made that decision, noting it was not a decision the mayor was empowered to make.
“Any claim that suggests the mayor had anything to do with rejecting crews is a flat-out lie,” Moline told the Sun-Sentinel. “It’s wrong. It’s false. It didn’t happen. The mayor wasn’t involved with selecting or choosing crews to bring into Tallahassee.”
Gillum’s political adviser, Kevin Cate, took to Twitter to blast DeSantis for playing dirty politics in an emergency,
“While Mayor Andrew Gillum is at the emergency operation center preparing Tallahassee for a Cat 3 hurricane, Ron DeSantis is running hurricane misinformation on TV in the cone of the hurricane. This isn’t just bad politics; it’s egregious and dangerous to public safety,” Cate tweeted.
President Trump on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in Florida. Speaking to reporters at the White House, he noted the storm came out of nowhere and is bigger than expected.
On Monday, in a TV interview before addressing a law enforcement conference in Orlando in which he called Michael “another big one,” Trump criticized Gillum’s performance as Tallahassee mayor.
Gillum “runs a place that has a lot problems,” he said, claiming Tallahassee has “tremendous corruption” and “tremendous crime.”
“This not what you want to run Florida,” Trump said.
Gillum responded Monday night in a tweet: “Hey @realDonaldTrump – don’t come to my state and talk trash about my city while we are preparing for a Category 3 hurricane. We need a partner right now, not a partisan.”
Nelson and DeSantis do not have the front-and-center stage their opponents do, although Nelson appeared at the state EOC Tuesday and has been on CNN, warning that a “wall of water” is headed to the Panhandle.
“Don’t think that you can ride this out if you’re in a low-lying area,” Nelson said on CNN.