On October 29, 2012, Super Storm Sandy made landfall on the Garden State and pulverized it. Few will forget the sights of the destroyed boardwalks, the devastation in Hoboken, the flooded suburbs, and the Star Jet rollercoaster sitting in the Atlantic at Seaside Heights. Millions were without power, damages were estimated to be $30 billion, and 38 residents were killed because of the storm. Gas stations had long lines and people picked up the soggy remains to rebuild their lives.
Governor Chris Christie had applied for disaster declaration and President Barack Obama delivered the following day, making federal resources available. The next day, Halloween, the Democratic president and Republican governor toured the damages together.
It didn’t take long for Republicans to blast Christie for his warm reception of the president in the middle of one of the biggest natural disasters to hit America in the 21st Century. This continued to follow Christie. While running for president, the likes of Rand Paul assailed him for giving Obama “a big hug” although, in fact, the two never actually did. They shook hands. When Sandy struck, it was an election year and Mitt Romney’s prospects were slipping. How could the New Jersey governor think to be anything but adversarial with the incumbent president who was helping the state to recover? Didn’t he want Romney to win?
The people of New Jersey, whose homes and businesses had been smashed and flooded, had more immediate concerns than partisan posturing.
Indeed, Governor Christie’s popularity had surged much like the turbulent seas themselves. As frequently happens during a disaster, when leadership actually does rise to the occasion and deliver, the popular response is intensely magnified. Christie polled about 80% approval and effortlessly snuffed out Seth Grossman in the 2013 primary with 91%. He cruised to a landslide victory over Barbara Buono, taking 60.3%, capturing majorities in every county in the state with the exception of blue fortresses Essex and Hudson. What happened thereafter, how New Jersey’s most popular governor ended his term as its least popular, is another matter for another time. The point is, New Jersey understands hurricane-like disasters, the optics, and the politics which are unfortunately blown up onto the shores with the rest of the flotsam and devastation that the truly non-partisan actor, Mother Nature, can bring.
Almost exactly ten years later—nine years and eleven months—Hurricane Ian, one of the most powerful storms to strike Florida since Hurricane Andrew, made landfall. As it now slams into the Carolinas, the enormous damages are still being assessed. Rescue operations are underway. The day after Ian struck Florida, Governor Phil Murphy was ready to send in the New Jersey National Guard through the Emergency Management Assistant Compact, which is a mechanism by which states can share their resources to help in a time of disaster.
The Governor’s office released a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Florida right now as they begin their journey to recovery from Hurricane Ian. We are thankful for the 135 men and women who bravely volunteered to travel down to Florida to assist with hurricane aid and relief efforts. We are continuing to monitor the storm as is heads further north and are prepared to provide more support where needed.”
A day later, however, North Jersey reported a reversal. It was announced that Florida did not require the New Jersey National Guard and the Guardsmen were going to stay. The exact reasons were not known as to why, other than the situation had changed.
This is the story of two governors on the national stage. This is also the story of two states, in many ways alike and in many ways profoundly different, but which share similar experiences almost a decade apart.
This is not to say that Florida is a stranger to hurricanes. It never was and never will be. But the scope of destruction amid a politically charged atmosphere invites politicos to draw comparisons and speculate.
Governor DeSantis has been making waves, as it were, in the post-Trump era. He is seen by many as the natural successor to Donald Trump and has been defining himself as the antagonistic MAGA-like alternative to Biden in particular and Democrats in general. Prior to Ian, he captured national headlines by taking migrants in Texas and dumping them off at Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and Governor Greg Abbott repeated the stunt, this time sending people to Kamala Harris’ home. The idea was to create a political stunt, drawing attention to the border and migrant situation while using human beings as pawns. Whether or not the irony will be lost on DeSantis’ and Abbott’s evangelical base will be determined on how they take to heart Matthew 25:34-40.
For Governor Murphy, and for the people of New Jersey, the disaster wrought by the hurricanes has proven an opportunity for New Jersey to try to do some tangible good for others. New Jersey State Troopers were sent to Puerto Rico, an American territory of American citizens. Though the New Jersey National Guard may not be needed (or perhaps wanted, one cannot tell at this juncture), the offer was made and on the table. It is up to emergency management personnel and top civil administrators to determine how best to use or not use those resources.
Former Obama White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had repeated a post-WWII Winston Churchill quote, saying, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” In this situation, the crisis is one which can demonstrate Murphy as the anti-DeSantis while the former continues to garner national attention. Murphy and DeSantis have criticized each other in the past, with the former casting himself as a compassionate progressive while the latter has assumed a populist mantle for those looking for a Trump alternative or acolyte. Murphy unabashedly defended the term “sanctuary state” for New Jersey; he took steps to confront the coronavirus called draconian on one hand and life-saving on another. DeSantis has transformed Florida public education with the righteousness of an Inquisitor, clashed with Florida megalith Disney, and scorned masks. The record will show that in the days leading up to Ian, DeSantis was sending migrants to other states, while Murphy was sending aid to disaster-struck Puerto Rico and Florida. As well he should, putting any political differences aside, especially in the case of DeSantis’ Florida, considering how many ex-New Jerseyans and Northeasterners have made the Sunshine State their home over the years.
DeSantis had said that Christie missed his opportunity to run for president in 2012. But DeSantis himself is running for re-election and should he come out of the polls as well as Christie did following Sandy, he will be given a golden opportunity coupled with Christie’s second-term experience to look back on for dos and don’ts. It remains to be seen whether either governor will throw his hat into the presidential ring in the future. This could be either 2024 or 2028 should Biden seek a second term in the case of Murphy, or Trump try to run again without incinerating his ideological allies in a primary in the case of DeSantis. But in either case, both New Jersey and Florida have had their political futures defined by catastrophic storms, and ambitious governors would do well to learn from each of those experiences going forward.