McManus: Political Fortunes Rise, Fall After Natural Disasters

Sep 9, 2016

Credit Nick Evans

Hermine is the first Hurricane to strike Florida in more than a decade. The storm plunged nearly all of North Florida, including the state’s capital city of Tallahassee, into darkness. Now the lights have come back on and they’re shining directly on to a Governor trying to make a bigger national mark, and a mayor considered a rising Democratic star.

Hermine downed hundreds of Tallahassee’s trees— a feature of the city guarded closely by residents and officials alike. In the wake of the storm, Tallahassee’s precious trees became her enemy. Striking down power lines, slicing homes in half. As dawn crept over the skyline, the reality was worse than expected. Of the 150 main circuits that take power from stations to the lines, more than 110 had gone down.

“Normally on a Friday morning like this we’d have 220 megawatts of Load at 7 in the morning. We had 53 megawatts of load that Friday morning, due to the damage," said City of Tallahassee Utility Manager Rob McGarrah.

Eighty percent of Tallahassee was dark. But area residents rallied together, bringing each other food and water, huddling in homes and businesses that still had power. But by Day Three, problems began to emerge, with many wondering why nursing homes and a senior assistance community were still dark. Later in the day, Governor Rick Scott alleged the City of Tallahassee had turned down help from Florida Power and Light and the Florida Department of Transportation. A war of words ensued, which Mayor Andrew Gillum said was unhelpful.

“Our citizens, at that time, we still had tens of thousands without power. And for them to perceive there was some breakdown or dysfunction between their state an local government was unhelpful," Gillum told reporters when asked about what had transpired.

The pace of recovery has now become a lightening rod for Gillum.

Tempers have risen with the temperature. And with no air conditioning to cool them down, they’ve simmered. Gillum insists he didn’t turn down anything. But in a meeting, an  FP&L official did offer help.

Still, such decisions are made by Tallahassee’s city manager and the utilities manager—the city’s elected Mayor has little power. And the decision on what assistance to accept and what to put off a while longer comes down to how many local resources are on the ground. With each additional crew that comes in, a city worker has to go help them navigate Tallahassee's grid for safety reasons. It has the effect of diluting resources. Communicating all that to residents came slowly, and Gillum has admitted the city could have done a better job of keeping people informed.

But none of that matters to voters, says University of South Florida political scientist Susan McManus:

“We have examples up north on how snow removal has been the demise of a mayor. No surprise. We want our leadership to be responsive when there’s danger and nothing is more dangerous than a huge natural disaster.”

Some local residents are giving Gillum a break on the city's response.

“The mayor? I have seen him doing great work. I mean, he’s new and you have to give him time to accommodate everyone. I think he’s doing a good job," said Angie Woodberry Footman. Trees were down around her home after Hermine. And Footman is also giving some credit to Governor Rick Scott.

He has been seen doing clean ups around town, speaking to residents, and expressing his dissatisfaction with the pace of power restoration. Now Senate Appropriations Chief Jack Latvala is calling for a hearing on whether small municipally-owned utilities are equipped to handle storm recoveries. And it’s these types of optics, says USF’s McManus, that can have a lasting impact on a politician’s future:

“When you’re the chief executive, whether you the governor or the mayor, you’re the one who will take all the heat because the buck stops at your desk.”

Hurricane Hermine proved the first litmus test for both Scott and Gillum. And voters will ultimately decide who did it best, as Scott mulls a bid for U.S. Senate, and Gillum continues to raise his own profile.