MATLACHA — Gov. Ron DeSantis and state officials spoke about the damage to Sanibel and Pine Island at a news conference on Wednesday.
The news conference came just ahead of the reopening of the bridge from Pine Island to the mainland.
“I’m happy to say we are able to be here today,” DeSantis said.
It was also held right before President Joe Biden visited the area — with some time in the afternoon spent with DeSantis, other state and local officials — and residents of the hard-hit region.
DeSantis noted both islands in Lee County displayed heavy visual signs of damage and very visible debris all over the islands. DeSantis has been touring hard hit areas of Hurricane Ian, from Port Charlotte to North Port to Naples to Arcadia in recent days.
Near the Lee County barrier islands, he noted the amount of vegetation and debris on Sanibel as well as the destruction of older homes on the island.
Biden arrived to Fort Myers, taking an aerial tour of the damage before meeting face to face with some victims of Hurricane Ian.
Hurricane Ian has resulted more than 100 people dead, including 75 in Florida, as hundreds of thousands of people wait for power to be restored. Ian’s 150 mph winds and punishing storm surge last week took out power for 2.6 million in Florida. Many people are unable to access food and water.
Biden typically waits to visit the scene of a natural disaster, to ensure his presence and the fleet of vehicles that accompany him will not hinder the rescue efforts.
Biden and DeSantis have had a multitude of differences in recent years over how to fight COVID-19, immigration policy and more. In recent weeks, they tussled over the governor’s decision to put migrants on planes or buses to Democratic strongholds, a practice that Biden has called “reckless.”
The hurricane changed the purpose and tone of Biden’s first trip to Florida this year.
As water receded, the destruction at Fort Myers’ Fisherman’s Wharf become evident. Homes and businesses lay in ruins, with windows shattered and the swirling tides from the surge turning the landscape into a wasteland of debris and muck.
The wharf lies on one side of the bridge that leads into Fort Myers Beach, which was brutalized by the Category 4 storm.
DeSantis praised the administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency for declaring an emergency before Ian made landfall.
“That was huge because everyone was full steam ahead. They knew they had the ability to do it,” DeSantis said. “We appreciate it. I think FEMA’s worked very well with the state and local.”
Biden wanted to meet with people impacted by the storm.
“I wanted to tell you in person that we’re thinking of you and we’re not leaving. We’re not leaving until this gets done. I promise you that,” Biden said at Fishermans Wharf in Fort Myers.
Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, surveyed storm-ravaged areas via a flight from above on Marine One. After the helicopter tour, the Bidens went to Fishermans Wharf where they were greeted by DeSantis and his spouse, Casey DeSantis.
The group moved into the wharf, where the four spoke with people the White House said were affected residents. As they ended their conversation, the president gave one of the women a hug from the side, putting his arm around her shoulders.
Biden said the recovery wouldn’t be over in days or weeks; it will take months or years.
“The only thing I can assure you is that the federal government will be here until it’s finished,” he said.
Biden’s personal meetings — with residents and business owners affected by Hurricane Ian, plus crews working on rescues, restoring power, distributing food and water and removing debris — represent one of the most important parts of a president’s job: serving as the nation’s consoler-in-chief.
Biden will announce a doubling of the time — to 60 days from 30 days — that the federal government will pick up 100% of costs for search and rescue, sheltering, feeding and other emergency measures to save lives, the White House said Wednesday.
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters during a briefing on Air Force One that there isn’t yet a cost estimate for the assistance.
“We are still very much in the life-saving and stabilization mode. They are just beginning the assessments of what the actual extent of damage is to the infrastructure. It’s going to be in the billions. How many billions? I don’t know yet. But it will certainly be in the billions. And perhaps one of the more costly disasters that we’ve seen in many years,” Criswell said.
The interaction between Biden and DeSantis will be analyzed.
“Thanks to President Biden” and the administration for their support, DeSantis said as he began the briefing at Fishermans Wharf.
Lee County has been hardest hit by the hurricane. Of 105 deaths reported as of Wednesday morning, 55 are from Lee County.
Nearly 4,000 federal personnel are on the ground helping with storm recovery efforts, the White House said.
At a news conference in Matlacha before the president’s arrival, DeSantis announced that the bridge that serves as a critical link between Pine Island and the mainland had been repaired and would be reopening earlier than expected.
He didn’t mention the president at his event, but DeSantis said in the last two days he’s toured Pine Island and Sanibel on the ground, and repeatedly said that gives a much better sense of the storm’s effects than flying over.
“You go over these things in a helicopter, it’s just not the same thing as being on the ground,” DeSantis said.
“I think we have a chance to bounce back a lot quicker than people think,” DeSantis said. “Usually government will promise and under deliver. Well, here’s an over-delivering.”
Kevin Guthrie, Florida’s emergency management director, estimated that statewide 34 million bottles of water had been distributed, along with 9 million meals-ready-to-eat. The state has also deployed approximately 500 generators with more anticipated soon.
Guthrie reiterated the need for generator safety to state residents.
“Don’t run generators under an open window,” he said. “Don’t run them in a garage.”
The state took the initiative to help the county get the road back online, DeSantis said. Other officials echoed his emphasis on collaboration.
“We partnered very closely with Lee County to get this road open again,” said Jared Perdue of the Florida Department of Transportation.
Perdue said state workers had cleared approximately 5,000 miles of state roads following the storm.
As Biden’s motorcade traveled, onlookers held up cellphones to take pictures. Reporters traveling with the president reported some held up their middle fingers.