FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — Like many other conservative residents of storm-battered southwest Florida, Pamela Swartz has long been leery of government spending. But as she stood among the smashed boats, gutted homes and overwhelming loss left by Hurricane Ian, Swartz said that federal aid could not come soon enough.
“This is their time to step in,” said Swartz, whose garage in Fort Myers Beach had been flooded by Ian’s devastating storm surge. She was already frustrated after trying to file a federal storm claim. “This is what we pay our taxes for.”
Hurricane Ian inflicted its worst damage and heaviest casualties across several deeply Republican counties, where Trump flags decorate yards and trucks and many voters express hostility toward President Joe Biden and the federal government in general.
On Wednesday, as Biden toured damaged areas of the coast and met and shook hands with Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 challenger who is usually one of his most strident critics, the two leaders shared bipartisan vows to build and recover. Both men have said they would put aside partisan differences in light of the disaster, which has killed at least 120 people in Florida, according to state and local officials. That is believed to be the most fatalities recorded in the state from a single hurricane since 1935.
But the task of rebuilding obliterated towns and repairing destroyed roads and power grids will require huge infusions of federal money and long-term cooperation between a Democratic White House and a Republican governor who is more accustomed to battling over COVID-19 policies, immigration and cultural norms. And in the polarized political climate five weeks before the midterm elections, the storm that smashed houses and swept away crucial roads has not changed many residents’ negative views of Washington.
In interviews this week around the region, some residents praised the governor while criticizing the federal response. They appreciated seeing DeSantis giving storm updates and touring damaged areas, they said, and many were satisfied with the response of their local government officials, despite questions about the timing of Lee County’s evacuation order.
“Our governor is the greatest,” said Jay Kimble, a maintenance worker on Fort Myers Beach who lost everything. “I know he’s going to do everything he can to get us back on our feet. I’m not a Biden fan at all.”
The five hard-hit counties along the southwest Florida coast — Charlotte, Collier, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota — are, on average, older and whiter and have a smaller proportion of Latino residents than the rest of the state. Those counties voted for former President Donald Trump by wide margins in 2020.
Lee County, where Ian made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, is the most populous in the region, with about 756,000 people, and has grown steadily as an affordable, low-tax retreat for Midwestern transplants and retirees in particular.
This week, residents said they were having trouble navigating the process of applying for federal disaster relief and had not seen much evidence of federal boots on the ground.
Some barrier-island residents who could not get any government officials to give them a ride to the islands to check on their homes said they had turned instead to the volunteer flotillas that have sprung up at piers.
John Lynch, 59, whose bright yellow house on Matlacha, a spit of land between the mainland and Pine Island, was now creaking ominously atop the shifting sands, said it seemed that most supplies were being delivered and distributed by churches and neighbors, rather than by the government.
“Day after day after day, nothing,” Lynch said about government aid.
On Tuesday, Lynch ventured onto the mainland to stock up on food and candles, and to get dry shampoo and coffee creamer for a neighbor who would not leave her home.
After a disaster of this magnitude, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is in charge of coordinating the response among federal agencies and working in tandem with state and local governments. It has faced repeated criticism over the past few decades for slow emergency response, most notably after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“We understand the road to recovery can be as long as it is frustrating, but we are here to help, and we will continue to do everything in our power to help all Floridians recover from this disaster,” Jeremy M. Edwards, a FEMA spokesperson, said in an email.
Deanne Criswell, the FEMA administrator, said Wednesday that nearly 4,000 federal officials were in Florida working on hurricane recovery. The agency approved $70 million this week for survivors of Ian, which analysts say has inflicted more than $40 billion in property damage claims alone. The agency also said it had set up food and water distribution sites, and was sending teams to shelters and people’s homes in 11 counties to help them start applying for disaster relief. “The needs are going to be massive,” said James Kendra, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. “In a case like this, nothing will ever happen fast enough for people who are affected.”
At a joint appearance with Biden on Wednesday, DeSantis thanked the president and praised the coordination that had come from the White House “from the very beginning.”
But along destroyed barrier islands severed from the mainland because of damage to roads and bridges, residents voiced frustration about pressure from officials to clear out during the cleanup process and about not enough assistance arriving from FEMA.
“People don’t really have a lot of places to go,” said Jamie Surgent, 37, a business owner on hard-hit Pine Island, adding, “I just want the help.”
Locals on Pine Island recalled seeing the United Cajun Navy, a nonprofit group whose members respond to disasters, ex-military members and their own neighbors steering boats through muddied waterways and checking on the people who had stayed. As they picked up basic supplies, a constant refrain was, “Where’s FEMA?”
Even without electricity and water, they refused to leave — and instead demanded that the government allow them to build a temporary bridge to restore access to the island, a wish that DeSantis said Wednesday had been fulfilled. Still, residents on the island and in nearby communities in the region said they felt neglected.
“FEMA, the government, they don’t give a crap about people down here like us,” said Chris Buxton, 49, who barely survived the storm in a low-lying neighborhood of North Fort Myers by huddling in the attic as the waters surged into his small white rental home.
On Tuesday, there was still no electricity, Buxton’s van was dead, and his belongings lay in a soggy pile in the front yard. No government relief workers had been through the neighborhood, Buxton, a maintenance manager, said. DeSantis voted in 2013 against hurricane aid for the New York region when he was a freshman in Congress, but he sought to “put politics aside” as he requested emergency federal reimbursements immediately after Ian struck last Wednesday.
“When people are fighting for their lives, when their whole livelihood is at stake, when they’ve lost everything — if you can’t put politics aside for that, then you’re just not going to be able to,” he told Tucker Carlson of Fox News last week. In recent days, though, DeSantis has assumed a more familiar combative posture. He scolded reporters for questioning why officials in hard-hit Lee County, where at least 58 people died in the storm, had delayed issuing evacuation orders until the day before Ian made landfall.
At a briefing Tuesday, he talked about post-hurricane looting in the context of immigration, noting that three people recently arrested on suspicion of looting were “illegal aliens” who “should not be here at all” to applause from the people arrayed around him.
Fears of looting were widespread, and residents vowed to defend their property at any cost — a stance that DeSantis endorsed when he said that “Floridians’ rights to defend themselves and their homes will be honored.” Rick Rufenacht, a 65-year-old retiree, said he was grateful for the local law enforcement response, at least.
“The police have been up and down the street, watching for looters,” he said. “You feel safe when you see them.”
The long-term recovery of Fort Myers Beach should be funded privately, Rufenacht said, as homeowners recoup insurance money and developers rebuild.
“Keep the government out of that part,” he said.