Hurricane politics: The peril is Category 5

A popular saying about politics comes from the late British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan.

A student once asked MacMillan what factor in politics posed the greatest challenge for leaders.

“Events, dear boy,” MacMillan replied.

Mother Nature may not be responsible for the future of all politicians. But, to paraphrase MacMillan, “weather events” have the potential to undercut even the most savvy Pols.

Bad weather and politics are often a toxic, unpredictable brew.

First the basics. A soggy rainstorm on Election Day in November will inevitably reduce voter turnout. Downpours – whether in Topeka or Buffalo – will prevent voters from going to the polls. Of course, lower turnout benefits some candidates and hurts others. It makes no difference whether it is a candidate for the school board, city council, district commission or congress. A rainmaker can be a kingmaker in politics.

Hurricane Irma flooded this street in Vilano Beach, Florida in September 2017.

Hurricane Irma flooded this street in Vilano Beach, Florida in September 2017.
(Reuters/Chris Wattie)

Hurricane Ian devastated communities throughout Florida and the Carolinas. Hurricanes of this magnitude don’t happen often, but they can completely recalibrate the ballot. Florida Republicans have redrawn congressional lines to give the GOP four seats in the House of Representatives. Florida has two marquee races next month: Former Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., challenges Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in the gubernatorial race. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., is trying to unseat Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

Political analysts have complained that they are not sure they understand the voting universe ahead of this fall’s midterm elections. It’s one of the more confusing choices for modeling. No one is sure which voters will appear. At first glance, it looks like Democrats are energetic after the Supreme Court decision on abortion. However, recent polls have shown that Republican voters show almost as much intensity in their interest in voting as Democrats.

However, a natural disaster of Ian’s magnitude can change the political landscape just as much as the storm. Some Florida polling stations were likely destroyed. People will inevitably not know where to vote. What about poll workers? What about people who are forced to move from one jurisdiction to another? On election day, some Floridians will still be focused on mundane tasks like finding food, shelter, medicine and diapers — and not voting.

Where voters end up is unpredictable. Plus, it’s even harder to predict if they’ll vote — let alone who they’ll vote for.

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But natural disasters place another burden on politicians.

Presidents, governors, members of parliament and senators control many things. But they cannot control the weather. And even when they carefully respond to storms, earthquakes, tornadoes, wildfires, and snowstorms, when things go bad, poll numbers can drop faster than barometric pressure in a tropical storm.

In fact, a seemingly good reaction can spiral out of control days later.

Such was the case when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi in 2006. The failure of flood control systems in New Orleans inundated the city for weeks, driving up the death toll.

President George W. Bush was taught a lesson about storms the hard way. Americans’ confidence in the President was already beginning to wane because of the Iraq war. Katrina only cemented her views on the 43rd President.

An American flag flies amid debris left behind after Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida on October 11, 2018.

An American flag flies amid debris left behind after Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida on October 11, 2018.
(Reuters/Jonathan Bachman/Files)

President George HW Bush faced a similar problem when the federal government was slow to respond to the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Andrew was a Category 5 storm that swept through Florida in late August of that year. It remains the strongest storm to ever hit the US mainland.

The Bush administration’s response to Andrew seemed lackluster.

“Where the hell is the cavalry on this one?” complained Kate Hale, Dade County’s emergency director, days after the storm.

Bush was already battling future President Bill Clinton in the closing days of this year’s presidential race. A third challenge by Ross Perot did the incumbent president no favours. Voters viewed the 41st President as indifferent to the storm. It contributed to the defeat of the President.

Republicans struggled with hurricanes for years after Katrina.

The GOP canceled the first day of its 2008 political convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, when a hurricane was threatening New Orleans across the Mississippi River. Republicans also eliminated the first day of the 2012 convention when Hurricane Isaac was heading towards Tampa, the site of this year’s convention.

But other political leaders have also faced public ire for losing sight of when Mother Nature is calling.

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And it’s not always hurricanes.

A blizzard dumped 21 inches of snow over Chicago in January 1979. The roads were impassable for days. Chicago’s Democratic Mayor Michael Bilandic found the blame. The storm not only buried parked cars, but also Bilandic’s political fortune. Incoming Democratic Mayor of Chicago Jane Byrne filmed anti-Bilandic campaign ads on the snow-covered streets of the Windy City. Byrne defeated Bilandic in the Democratic primary the next month.

The late Washington, DC Mayor Marion Barry fell out of favor in early 1990 when police arrested him on cocaine charges during a stabbing in a hotel room. But a different kind of white powder got Barry into trouble in 1987.

Barry flew to Pasadena, California to watch Super Bowl XXI at the Rose Bowl. The New York Giants defeated the Denver Broncos 39-20. But Barry stayed behind and partied with friends – drinking bottles of champagne and cognac.

The public and press corps reprimanded Barry.

“Blizzard of indifference,” lamented the Washington City Paper after the mayor failed to return to Washington for six days after the storm.

Barry seemed distant when it came to the political implications of the weather.

Barry urged residents of the District of Columbia to “take a bus” when 18 inches of snow fell on the city early in his first term in 1979.

Superstorm Sandy swept through New York City and the northeastern United States in the fall of 2012. Lawmakers from both parties were furious when Republicans refused to back an additional $60 billion spending bill to help the region recover. Former Rep. Peter King, RN.Y., was particularly outraged when former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, refused to introduce the bill in the closing hours of the 112th Congress.

Many Republicans argued the package was a “handout” to the Northeast and wanted no part in helping New York City.


There were concerns that Boehner might not survive a January 2013 election as speaker if he advanced the package hours before the end of the 112th Congress.

The House of Representatives eventually approved Bill 241-180 early in the 113th Congress after Boehner won the Speaker’s Vote. But despite the majority at the time, just under 49 Republicans voted yes.

Most Republican votes came from members of the leadership, those from the Northeast, legislators from the Gulf Coast who were used to hurricanes, or members of the Appropriations Committee — the body that allocates federal dollars.

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FEMA has everything it needs to meet Hurricane Ian’s immediate needs in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. Congress approves $9 billion to increase disaster relief fund. But a storm of Ian’s magnitude means the region will inevitably need tens of billions in federal aid to recover. It will take some time to assess the damage. Lawmakers could pin that money to a bill due in mid-December to avoid a government shutdown.

Wind blows a palm tree in Havana, Cuba, September 27, 2022.

Wind blows a palm tree in Havana, Cuba, September 27, 2022.
(AP Photo/Ishmael Francisco)

But there’s an important dynamic to watch: There aren’t many Republicans left in Congress who opposed the Sandy bill in 2012 and 2013. But they certainly share the political philosophy of those who roamed Capitol Hill a decade ago. Republicans who are pushing for austerity on other issues are already demanding federal funding.

DeSantis voted no to the Sandy Act as a Florida congressman in 2013. Not a single Florida Republican voted yes.

During an appearance on Fox, Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., blasted the bill for giving Ukraine $12 billion — even though the plan has awarded FEMA funds for immediate needs.

“Why don’t we focus on Americans who need help right now,” Steube said.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., also voted no last week.

“I want us to be fiscally responsible,” Bilirakis told Fox. “It is responsible to wait until the funds are exhausted.”


In response to the aftermath of Katrina in 2006, FEMA’s coffers ran dry. Congress returned to session during the summer recess to approve funds from FEMA in a dramatic midnight session.

Bilirakis also said he opposed the makeshift law because it diverted money to Ukraine.

“The money has to come home and not abroad,” Bilirakis said.

The political storm surrounding Hurricane Ian has not yet fully formed as the December deadline nears. But it is inevitable that a hurricane of this magnitude could have Category 5 political consequences.

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