Politics Off Radar in Battered-Ground State

Times Staff Writers

A weary Eva Stines is troubled these days.

Her house was demolished by the double punch of two successive hurricanes that hit this central Florida town in the last month -- and a third monster Atlantic storm may be headed her way next week.

With all that, she isn’t thinking about: the 2004 presidential campaign, saying “politics is the last thing on everybody’s mind right now.”

But politics is certainly on the minds of Democrats and Republicans. They know that the voting outcome in this crucial state could hinge on how these disasters are handled in the weeks leading up to the election.


In 2000, President Bush beat Democrat Al Gore by only 537 votes in Florida. And with 27 electoral votes, 10% of the total needed to win the White House, the state once again remains critical in 2004.

For Bush, it’s essential to deliver much-needed relief services, so as not to repeat 1992, when his father lost the state after being slow to respond to Hurricane Andrew.

Bush has pledged several billion in relief money. And besides the normal disaster relief workers, dispatched about 150 Environmental Protection Agency staffers to do such things as hand out pamphlets regarding insurance. The move prompted union representatives to complain they were sent to Florida to polish the administration’s image.

“We are using senior people to hand out pamphlets and that is just an incredible misuse of these top professionals,” said Wes Wilson, a Denver-based EPA engineer, who said he was speaking in his capacity as a union legislative advocate. “You wouldn’t take a surgeon at a VA hospital and have him handing out pamphlets,”

But those kind of efforts seem to be working. So far, the Bush administration has received good grades from residents, while the Kerry campaign has had to keep its distance so it doesn’t appear to be capitalizing on the disasters.

Still, the storms did hit hardest in core Republican counties that dominate central Florida and both coasts. And normally reliable conservative voters -- as well as some Democrats -- might be too caught up with their losses to even show up at the polls, experts say.

“Florida is reeling from natural events that for some will take months, even years, to recover from -- no electricity, a messy cleanup, job losses. It’s a chaotic time,” said Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of public administration at Florida State University in Tallahassee. “To me, it’s just inconceivable that this disaster is not going to result in some reduction in the voter turnout in November.”

Bush made a highly visible sweep through Florida on Wednesday, pledging at least $2 billion in aid and immediate attention from both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration.


Meanwhile, Democratic advisors acknowledge that the storm’s aftermath has stalled Kerry’s campaign here, forcing him to cancel several planned visits for fear of appearing as though he were trying to politically exploit the disasters.

“It makes it very difficult,” said Scott Maddox, Florida’s Democratic Party chairman. “It puts the campaign on hold with less than 60 days to go in the election.”

Kerry has not campaigned in Florida since accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in late July. Bush’s most recent Florida trip was his 27th visit to the state since being elected. But some experts say those visits have the potential to spell trouble for the president.

“These presidential visits to Florida in the wake of these storms could backfire on the president in the months ahead,” said deHaven-Smith. “If people believe he can straighten out all their problems resulting from the hurricanes and then later find out he can’t, they might hold him partially responsible.”


Five days after Hurricane Frances made landfall early Sunday along the state’s south Atlantic coast, slightly fewer than 1 million people remained without power amid a stubborn outage spread across 47 of the state’s 67 counties

Many residents are only now assessing their wind and water damage and some frustrated homeowners are finding that their insurance co-payments are far too high to get any repairs done. Others are anxiously calling FEMA inspectors to see what immediate help they can get.

“So far, the reaction to the aid effort has been mixed,” said Craigon Mosteller, a spokeswoman for the state emergency operations center in the capital city of Tallahassee. “Some people are pleasantly surprised that help has come so fast and others are frustrated that none has come at all.”

Businesses are also hurting, especially the state’s billion-dollar citrus industry.


While Hurricane Charley damaged 20% of the state’s orange crop, Frances hit both oranges and grapefruit.

“Some estimates have 90% of the grapefruit lying on the ground beneath the trees,” said Walt Lincer, a vice president for sales and marketing for Florida’s Natural Growers, a cooperative based in Lake Wales.

Casey Pace, a spokeswoman for Florida Citrus Mutual, an industry trade group, said the Bush administration pledged $225 million to help cover damages from Hurricane Charley. But growers will need even more to cope with Frances, she said.

“For people who have damage, that money is a necessity,” she said. “Without it, they will definitely go out of business.”


State Republicans say Bush is getting the job done for Florida residents.

“I’ve heard from a lot of folks and read the comments of even more, from both parties, and almost without exception they’re very focused on the relief effort and very satisfied with the way things are going,” said Joseph Agostini, a spokesman for the state Republican Party in Tallahassee.

“The Democrats are trying to politicize things -- it’s a desperate attempt to undermine some genuine efforts to bring relief to Floridians.”

But Lois Frankel, the Democratic mayor of West Palm Beach, one of the communities hardest hit by Hurricane Frances, said she is setting partisan politics aside and pulling for Bush.


“As partisan as I am, I don’t have the luxury for analysis of this storm in political terms -- I’m just trying to get whatever I can from whomever I can,” she said. “If President Bush shines because he delivers for the state of Florida, that’s what I want for this city.”

In Boca Raton, where many remain without power and others still wait in line for gas and ice, Republican Mayor Steven I. Abrams said frustrated residents are venting in all directions.

“If people are angry, they’re blaming anybody and everybody,” he said.

Abrams said Bush learned a valuable lesson from his father’s dealings with Florida after Hurricane Andrew. “He came to the state quickly, appearing to mobilize every resource the federal government has. But people have to realize that he’s only the president. He’s not God. He can’t turn everyone’s electricity on.”


That mobilization led to the dispatch of the EPA staffers. Despite the complaints, EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said all the employees volunteered for the assignment. “We are doing what we can because we want to help,” said Bergman. The staffers will earn overtime for putting in 12-hour days, up to seven days a week.

Although he acknowledged the employees had volunteered, union representative Wilson said it means important work will not get done at the agency, which is facing staff and budget cuts.

“It’s not life-and-limb, it’s not hazardous materials cleanup, it’s not the normal EPA duties,” said Wilson. He said he had not seen a similar deployment in his 30 years with the EPA.

Officials of FEMA, which requested assistance from the EPA and other federal agencies, denied any political motivation. “Our job is to help disaster victims,” said a senior FEMA manager who asked not to be identified. “We are trying to keep people from falling through the cracks.”


The EPA staffers will circulate through storm-damaged neighborhoods and talk to residents to make sure they are aware of federal assistance programs and how to file claims. They will also report back to FEMA on community-wide needs.

“It sounds like these folks are going to be doing things that are totally unrelated to the duties for which they are paid,” said J. Ward Morrow, a lawyer for the union in Washington. “It almost sounds like a public relations effort.”

No matter how Bush fares in the eyes of Floridians in the coming weeks, experts say any political bounce or deflation from the storms will be short-lived. “Once people get their power back, they tend to forget about these kinds of things,” said Brad Coker, a Florida pollster.

In tiny Lake Wales, a farm town of 12,000 -- one of the few in Florida hit by both hurricanes Charley and Frances -- residents are watching closely.


Mayor Cliff Tonjes, who owns a hardware store in town, met briefly Thursday with FEMA workers, giving them directions to hard-hit areas of town.

He believes that residents will shake off the aftereffects of the storm and faithfully go to the polls.

In late August, within days after Hurricane Charley hit, he said, 26% of Polk County residents voted in a statewide primary -- a far better average than the 20% turnout that pollsters predicted.

“Absolutely, when election day comes, people will go to the polls -- unless, of course, another hurricane hits that day.”



Times staff writer Tom Hamburger in Washington contributed to this report.