LIVE OAK, Fla. (AP) — President Joe Biden on Saturday saw from the sky Hurricane Idalia's impact across a swath of Florida before he set out on a walking tour of a city recovering from the storm. Notably absent was Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate who declined to join Biden after he suggested that the Democrat's presence could hinder disaster response efforts.
Biden, when asked about his rival's absence, said he was not disappointed by the turn of events, but welcomed the presence of Rick Scott, one of the state's two Republican U.S. senators.
He pledged the federal government's total support for Floridians.
“I'm here today to deliver a clear message to the people of Florida and throughout the Southeast,” Biden said after the walking tour. He spoke outdoors near a church that had parts of its sheet metal roof peeled back by Idalia's powerful winds and a home half crushed by a fallen tree.
“As I’ve told your governor, if there’s anything your state needs, I’m ready to mobilize that support,” he continued. "Anything they need related to these storms. Your nation has your back and we’ll be with you until the job is done.’’
Earlier, the mayor of Live Oak, which is about 80 miles east of Tallahassee, the state capital, thanked Biden and first lady Jill Biden for coming and “showing us that we're important to you.”
“Everybody thinks Florida is rich, but this is not one of the richest counties in the state and there are people who are suffering,'' said Frank Davis, adding he knew of no loss of life or serious injury.
At Suwannee Pineview Elementary School, where the Bidens were briefed on the storm damage, local officials offered praise for early disaster declarations by the White House and the quick flow of federal aid. “What the federal government is doing ... is a big deal,” Scott said.
Helping Floridians and their communities get back on their feet was the emphasis at the briefing on response and recovery efforts, with DeSantis' conspicuous absence seemingly not a concern for residents and officials.
Deanne Criswell, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told reporters as the president flew from Washington that her team and the governor's team had “worked collectively” to determine that Biden would visit Live Oak. She said her teams "have heard no concerns over any impact to the communities that we’re going to visit today.’’
On Friday, hours after Biden said he would be meeting with DeSantis, the governor's office issued a statement saying there were no plans for that. “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," DeSantis spokesman Jeremy Redfern said in a statement.
DeSantis' office said his public schedule Saturday included stops in Keaton Beach, about 60 miles southwest of Live Oak, and Horseshoe Beach, about 75 miles away, with the last event beginning at 1:45 p.m.
Criswell said aboard the flight that power is being restored and the roads are all open in the area where Biden was going. “Access is not being hindered,” she said, adding that her team had been in “close coordination” with the governor's staff.
Idalia made landfall Wednesday morning along Florida’s sparsely populated Big Bend region as a Category 3 storm, causing widespread flooding and damage before moving north to drench Georgia and the Carolinas.
As Biden left Washington on Saturday morning, reporters asked what happened with the meeting. “I don’t know. He’s not going to be there,” the president said of DeSantis.
The political disconnect between both sides is a break from the recent past, since Biden and DeSantis met when the president toured Florida after Hurricane Ian hit the state last year, and following 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 following natural disasters can be tricky, meanwhile.
Another 2024 presidential candidate, former Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has long been widely criticized in GOP circles for embracing then-President Barack Obama during a tour of damage 2012’s Hurricane Sandy did to his state. Christie was even asked about the incident last month, during the first Republican presidential debate.
Both Biden and DeSantis at first suggested that helping storm victims would outweigh partisan differences. But the governor 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,” the governor 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, the governor was telling reporters of Biden, “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.
The post-Idalia political consequences are high for both men.
As Biden seeks reelection, the White House has asked for an additional $4 billion to address natural disasters as part of a supplemental funding request to Congress. That would bring the total to $16 billion and highlight that intensifying extreme weather is imposing ever higher costs on U.S. taxpayers.
DeSantis has built his White House bid around dismantling what he calls Democrats’ “woke” policies. The governor also frequently draws applause at GOP rallies by declaring that it’s time to send “Joe Biden back to his basement,” a reference to the Democrat’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 primary’s dominant early front-runner. And he has cycled through repeated campaign leadership shakeups and reboots of his image in an attempt 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 several states holding Super Tuesday primaries in March — a further sign of trouble.
Associated Press writer Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.
Will Weissert, The Associated Press