Collier County condemns bigotry, anti-Semitism and hate in proclamation

Illustration by Rose Wong.

Oct. 25, 2022 by David Silverberg

Full disclosure: The author was the drafter of the proclamation covered here.

Today, the Collier County Board of Commissioners proclaimed the county’s condemnation of bigotry, anti-Semitism and hate towards all people.

The proclamation made at the Commission’s regularly scheduled general meeting came amidst a rise in anti-Semitic expressions nationally and incidents locally, as well as a general increase in expressions of intolerance and prejudice (proclamation image below).

The proclamation was introduced by William McDaniel (R-5), chair of the Commission. It was approved by all commissioners.

This author spoke in favor of the proclamation, stating “President George Washington famously wrote that the United States gives ‘to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.’ This proclamation puts Collier County squarely within that fundamental, patriotic American tradition.”

Also speaking was Rabbi Adam Miller of Temple Shalom in Naples. Miller noted that Temple Shalom was 60 years old and when he became rabbi, one of the oldest congregants related that when she was being shown local properties the realtor told her that she should stay on Florida’s east coast with other Jews.

The current proclamation, said Miller, was valuable for everyone because “it expresses respect and engagement” with the whole community.

Also present to lend support was Rabbi Ammos Chorny of Beth Tikvah Congregation, Naples; Rev. Tony Fisher, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples; Vincent Keeys, president of the Collier County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and Bebe Kanter, Democratic candidate for county District 2.  

Significance of the proclamation

No proclamation is going end hate or bigotry or anti-Semitism. However, amidst a rise in prejudice, especially during a heated election period, there is value in a formal statement condemning those sentiments.

The proclamation puts Collier County officially on the record against that kind of bias.

Deterrence

Very importantly, the proclamation may deter hate crimes, violence and expressions of anti-Semitism. It “condemns any call to violence or use of violence for any purpose at any time; and resolves to actively and vigorously oppose, investigate, and prosecute to the fullest extent of the law any advocacy of violence, acts of violence, or crimes manifesting hatred against any person, property, or institution based on faith, race, gender, creed, sexual orientation, or national origin.”

Given that there have been instances of anti-Semitic vandalism and leafletting in neighboring Lee County, this may protect Collier County from similar incidents. Anyone contemplating such actions, if made aware of the County’s position, may decide not to break the law.

It also makes vigorous investigation, pursuit and prosecution of hate crimes a priority for county law enforcement.

The denunciation of violence also comes amidst advocacy of violence and violent political rhetoric.  Most immediately, yesterday, Oct. 24, Christopher Monzon, a supporter of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), was brutally beaten by four men while passing out campaign flyers in Hialeah.

The proclamation also repudiates the kind of overtly anti-Semitic allegations made locally by Katie Paige Richards, who claimed to be campaign manager for Collier County School Board candidate Tim Moshier. On a national level, rapper and singer Kanye West (who now prefers to go by the name Ye) has tweeted anti-Semitic tweets, sparking anti-Semitic demonstrations and leafleting in California.

An anti-Semitic demonstration on an overpass in Los Angeles, Calif., on Saturday, Oct. 23. (Image: TMZ)

Hospitality

With Southwest Florida recovering from Hurricane Ian and its hospitality and tourism industries damaged, the proclamation makes clear that Collier County is an open, welcoming place and ready to receive all visitors and guests.

This is important on a global basis as people make their vacation plans and the tourist season rolls around. They will be carefully examining Southwest Florida.

Despite the physical damage resulting from the storm, at least Collier County’s welcoming attitudes and commitments are intact, as made clear by the proclamation.

History

It is a sad fact of history that after a natural disaster there is frequently scapegoating and persecution of minority ethnic, racial or religious groups. It seems that people must vent their frustration and anger resulting from a natural calamity. But since they can’t take it out on the storm, fire or flood, they take it out on each other—and it’s at its worst when it’s officially sanctioned.

There are numerous examples of this.

Reaching back in history, after the Great Fire of Rome in the year 64 of the Common Era, the emperor Nero sought to deflect suspicions of his own arson by blaming and persecuting Christians in the Roman Empire and especially in the city of Rome itself. In 1666 during the Great Fire of London, with Britain at war with Holland, Londoners attacked foreigners living in their midst while the fire raged.

In the United States, people of Irish extraction were blamed for the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, giving rise to the legend of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, a sly canard against them. In 1889, after the Johnstown Flood in Johnstown, Pa., survivors, some of Eastern European extraction, blamed ethnic Hungarians for a variety of lurid crimes and alleged atrocities. In 1906 after the San Francisco earthquake, the discrimination and prejudice against the city’s Japanese community was so great that it threatened to cause war between Japan and the United States. President Theodore Roosevelt had to intervene on behalf of the community. In 1927, after the Mississippi River and its tributaries severely flooded there was a savage wave of lynchings of blacks when the waters receded. During the 2019-2021 COVID pandemic, goaded by President Donald Trump, attacks on Asians rose exponentially.

In an example of better behavior and the positive influence authority figures can have, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 (a deliberate, man-made disaster), President George W. Bush and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani successfully tamped down any retaliation against American Muslims.

“I ask you to uphold the values of America, and remember why so many have come here,” Bush said in a speech to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20, 2001.  “We are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them.  No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith.”

So far Southwest Florida has not seen any of this kind of scapegoating in the wake of Hurricane Ian. The Collier County anti-bigotry proclamation may go some way toward preventing it in the days ahead.

A reaffirmation

There is a power in reaffirmation and recommitment—just ask couples who renew their wedding vows.

The Collier anti-bigotry proclamation may seem to simply restate principles and values that all decent people share. But sometimes it’s things that seem most self-evident and obvious and taken for granted that need reaffirmation.

Further, these values and principles have long been under assault, along with democracy itself. They can no longer be taken for granted or assumed to have power on their own.

The proclamation makes clear that Collier County is a place of tolerance that “abhors bigotry, discrimination, prejudice, and all forms of hate against all people regardless of faith, race, gender, creed, sexual orientation, or national origin,” as it states.

Beyond just setting an example for Southwest Florida, the Collier proclamation can serve as a template for every town, city and county in the nation as they reaffirm their allegiance to common values and principles. The village-to-village fight can be waged for good.

Collier County’s issuance of the anti-bigotry proclamation puts it squarely within the fundamental, patriotic, American tradition expressed by President George Washington at the dawn of the nation in 1790. He wrote that “…happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

And now Collier County has again made clear that applies in Southwest Florida as well as everywhere else.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

Southwest Florida can build back better—if it chooses

A Naples resident looks out over the pier after Hurricane Donna in 1960. (Photo: Collier Museum)

Oct 12, 2022 by David Silverberg

Even weeks after Hurricane Ian stormed ashore in Lee County it’s still shocking to see the debris and destruction all along the Paradise Coast. New victims are being found and new stories of survival are coming to light.

But as stunning and disorienting and overwhelming as the storm’s impact continues to be, it’s not too soon to begin thinking about building back—better.

A disaster is awful but it’s also an opportunity. With a blank slate and a clear field, post-disaster periods can also be a time for grand plans and sweeping visions.

That may seem illusory as people just find places to live, food to eat and get back basic utilities like electricity and water. But it would be a mistake to overlook the chance to reinvent, reform and uplift communities that seem at the moment to have lost everything.

The rebuilding process can be tricky, though. The inclination of people is to try to rebuild exactly what went before and to do it as quickly as possible. There is always a clash between those who want to restore and those who want to renew and getting to one or the other of those destinations can be a winding and uncertain road.

Southwest Florida is hardly the first place to face such a dilemma.

Past examples

To reach back in time and space to an example long ago and far away, this is what happened in London after the Great Fire of 1666. This immense conflagration leveled much of the ancient city, including its crowded medieval streets and tenements. In its wake, planners and architects like Chistopher Wren envisioned a new, clean and fresh London rebuilt in the latest style and according to rational principles.

However, property owners and landlords wanted to rebuild their buildings on their holdings as quickly as possible and as closely to the previous plans as they could.

What resulted was a jumble of claims and counter-claims that was so chaotic and complex that Londoners created a special court to sort through them all. It took many years to resolve them. Meanwhile, what was rebuilt was a hodge-podge of the old and the new. Christopher Wren never got his sweeping new city but he was able to design and oversee the construction of a new St. Paul’s Cathedral, the one that stands today.

Closer to home in time and location, in 1960 Hurricane Donna swept into Naples, Florida and wiped out what was largely an undistinguished and utilitarian downtown. Naples rebuilt but its retail center, Fifth Avenue, declined in the face of suburban mall competition. In 1992 local merchants brought in Miami architect and urban planner Andres Duany to take a holistic view of the town.

“The key to reviving Fifth Avenue is not solely to make it work competently from the point of view of retail,” Duany told the city council, businesspeople and community leaders in 1993. “…Fifth Avenue must be made into a community space, a civic space, a place where neighbors can come to know each other.”

Duany’s detailed planning and vision not only revived Naples’ downtown, it made it a tourist destination and created a consistent, themed urban landscape that supported vibrant retail businesses and restaurants.

This year Naples took its own hit from Hurricane Ian, with storm surge flooding Fifth Avenue. Some stores and restaurants remain closed and some will no doubt not reopen. But it’s also likely that it will revive and attract new businesses—and that revival will build on the planned concept already in place.

Another town that sought to build back better after a disaster was Greensburg, Kansas. On May 4, 2007 an E-5 tornado swept into the small town of 1,400 people, killing 12 and virtually wiping it off the landscape.

The town’s council, meeting in a parking lot, decided that when they rebuilt they would do it in as energy-efficient and environmentally friendly a way possible.

When Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) visited a few days later and learned of the plans, she told them “‘It sounds like you’re going to build it green,’” then-city manager Steve Hewitt recalled to The Washington Post in a 2020 article. “Then we walked out to a press conference and Governor Sebelius said we were going to put the green in Greensburg. We were already talking about it, but she helped brand it and gave energy to what we were trying to do.”

It should be noted that Greensburg was not the home of tree-hugging hippies. It was a conservative Republican town. But city leaders could see a reality beyond political orthodoxy.

As of 2020, according to the Post, “…Greensburg draws 100 percent of its electricity from a wind farm, making it one of a handful of cities in the United States to be powered solely by renewable energy. It now has an energy-efficient school, a medical center, city hall, library and commons, museum and other buildings that save more than $200,000 a year in fuel and electricity costs, according to one federal estimate. The city saves thousands of gallons of water with low-flow toilets and drought-resistance landscaping and, in the evening, its streets glow from LED lighting.”

Greensburg has had its challenges (among others, at one point a wind turbine collapsed in a field). Its green rebuilding was not a panacea and did not result in an economic boom. But it put the town on the world map as a visionary municipality and made it stand out among all the other places on the plains. It also attracted $120 million in disaster relief funds from Kansas, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and US Agriculture Department. To this day it remains an American touchstone in disaster recovery and rebuilding.

A coastal Renaissance?

It may seem premature to note this but towns like Sanibel, Matlacha and most of all, Fort Myers Beach now have similar opportunities to plan their rebuilding along rational, visionary lines.

As Greensburg chose to build back better emphasizing energy efficiency and environmentalism, the towns of the Paradise Coast now have an opportunity to be world leaders in climate resilience and protection, rebuilding to take into account climate change and sea level rise—and anticipating its effects.

They have the potential to update their water management practices and systems and have an unparalleled resource in Florida Gulf Coast University’s Water School.

Like Greensburg, they can also rebuild in an environmentally and energy-efficient way.

Like Naples, the rebuilt towns can be made more esthetically pleasing and pedestrian-friendly, perhaps with waterside boardwalks or promenades and a re-built Times Square in Fort Myers Beach, where “neighbors can come to know each other,” as Duany put it.

To rebuild in this fashion would attract federal support and funding that is sorely needed now. Unfortunately, before Hurricane Ian, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) line-item vetoed $1 million for Times Square renovation in Fort Myers Beach. Perhaps that state money can be restored and increased for rebuilding.

The alternative is to allow a haphazard scramble. In this case, the likely scenario is that developers and speculators swoop in and buy up distressed beach properties from desperate owners for pennies on the dollar. Building commences in a chaotic, uncoordinated way and the result is an unsightly and inefficient mish-mash of commercial and residential buildings.

Better rebuilding will take a lot of discipline, cooperation and coordination. Naples’ 1994 revival was done by the city council, business owners and residents all working together guided by a common vision. To successfully rebuild Hurricane Ian’s communities will take similar unity.

But the time to start doing this is now. The potential rewards justify the effort. If people are willing to be cooperative and patient, Hurricane Ian may be the precursor to a Paradise Coast renaissance—but only if Southwest Floridians are willing to build back better together.

______________________

To learn more about past disasters and responses, see the author’s book: Masters of Disaster: The political and leadership lessons of America’s greatest disasters.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

President Joe Biden is no stranger to Southwest Florida

The former Biden property on Keewaydin Island. in 2016 (Photo: Derrick Moreno)

Oct. 3, 2022 by David Silverberg

When President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden come to Southwest Florida as scheduled on Wednesday, Oct. 5, they will not be coming to unfamiliar territory.

Biden’s connection to Southwest Florida is through his brother, James Biden Jr., who bought a vacation home on five acres of Keewaydin Island for $2.5 million in 2013. He then sold it for $1.35 million in February 2018. This was after Hurricane Irma struck in September 2017.

Joe Biden spent Christmas 2013 on Keewaydin with the family.

The exact status of Keewaydin Island is unclear as of this writing, as is the fate of the house that Biden Jr. once owned.

Further to the south, the iconic dome homes of Cape Romano are now completely submerged due to Hurricane Ian.

Biden’s stops and itinerary in Southwest Florida for his Wednesday visit have not been publicly released. However, a common practice for officials is to do a flyover of an affected area to get an overview of the damage. Biden can be expected to do the same before meeting local officials and victims on the ground. If the flyover includes Keewaydin Island, he may get to see the house where he once visited—or at least what’s left of it.

Presidential visits to disaster-stricken areas can have a major impact on speeding recovery and assistance, particularly if the president is familiar with the region.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

Southwest Florida reps vote to shut down government helping Southwest Florida–Updated

Fort Myers Beach after Hurricane Ian. (Image: News10)

Oct. 1, 2022 by David Silverberg

Updated 9:00 am with Senate votes.

As Southwest Florida digs out from Hurricane Ian, its representatives in Congress voted to shut down the federal government that is aiding the devastated region.

Reps. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) all voted against the Continuing Appropriations and Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2023 (House Resolution (HR) 6833), to keep the government operating.

Despite their opposition, the bill passed the US House by a vote of 230 to 201, with 10 Republicans voting in favor of it. It had earlier passed the Senate by an overwhelming vote of 72 to 25. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) voted against the bill, while Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was absent.

President Joe Biden signed it into law last night, Sept. 30, just before government funding ran out.

Under the bill, the government will continue operating at current spending levels until Dec. 16.

The bill includes $18.8 billion in spending for disaster recovery efforts. In addition to Florida’s needs, it funds efforts for Western wildfires and flooding in Kentucky.

The bill also funds the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is assisting hard-hit Southwest Florida. The region sustained what is likely to be many billions of dollars in damages from the direct strike from the Category 4 hurricane.

Charlotte and Sarasota counties in Steube’s 17th District were especially devastated.

If Donalds, Steube and Diaz-Balart had succeeded in stopping the bill with their negative votes, the government would have shut down and there would be no money for search and rescue, emergency response and the beginning of recovery.

In addition to keeping the government functioning, the bill provides $12.4 billion to assist Ukraine in its fight for survival against Russia.

However, House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) emphasized the aid to Florida in a speech supporting passage of the bill.

“Alongside this critical package for Ukraine, this legislation directs significant funding to help American families devastated by disaster,” she said.  “We continue to hold all the families affected by Hurricane Ian in our hearts and prayers during this difficult time, but we need money to help them.  The $2 billion or more in the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funding in this bill will go toward supporting Florida as well as Puerto Rico, Alaska and other communities hit by disaster.  But again, we need more. 

“And we’re also allowing FEMA to spend up to its entire year of funding, giving the agency access to an additional $18.9 billion from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund to quickly respond to disasters, especially appropriate now with Ian. And we will need more,” she said.

Despite many public statements and social media postings related to Hurricane Ian, Southwest Florida’s congressmen did not explain their votes against funding the federal government and disaster recovery money.

In his many tweets related to Hurricane Ian and his support for other measures to aid Southwest Florida, Donalds did not address his vote to shut down the government.

His Democratic opponent, Cindy Banyai had to evacuate her home and was without communications. “I rode out the Hurricane and have surveyed the damage. My job is to speak truth to power and that means we need some answers,” she tweeted, issuing a statement saying that “I know many people want to see unity at this time. But if you’re mad, like me, after all is said and done with Hurricane Ian, we need something better.”

For his part, Steube noted in a tweet that FEMA had approved assistance for affected individuals in Polk County but did not address his vote against further government funding.

Diaz-Balart also made no statement regarding his vote against federal funding and operations.

In contrast, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-23-Fla.) noted: “We cannot leave communities behind that are still picking up the pieces from disastrous floods, wildfires and hurricanes and even basic water system failures. This funding bill comes to their rescue.”

Even Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a determined and relentless critic of Biden, had to acknowledge the importance of the federal role in coping with the storm and its aftermath. “My view on all this is like, you’ve got people’s lives at stake, you’ve got their property at stake and we don’t have time for pettiness,” he said before Ian made landfall. “We gotta work together to make sure we’re doing the best job for them, so my phone line is open.”

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

Can Florida’s politicians meet the test of Hurricane Ian?

Hurricane Ian, photographed yesterday while a tropical storm. (Photo: NOAA)

Sept. 26, 2022 by David Silverberg

Politicians can strike any poses they want, maneuver any way they like, fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time—but they can’t avoid, evade or disguise a natural disaster.

Hurricane Ian will be a major test of the leadership and management abilities of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and the entire slate of incumbent office holders seeking election this November. It could make them or break them—and DeSantis’ performance will be judged in light of his 2024 presidential ambitions.

Generally, a natural disaster favors an incumbent. An official in charge can display leadership, command and competence that win favor and respect in a way no challenger can match.

It’s hard to remember now but a sterling response to a disaster was shown by Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York on Sept. 11, 2001. Throughout a day of chaos and terror, including times when he was physically in danger, Giuliani never broke down, never disengaged, never cowered, never panicked, and never abandoned or betrayed his responsibilities or his role as a chief executive and leader. That performance won him a place as Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” and the sobriquet “America’s Mayor.” It was arguably the best response by any elected leader to any major disaster in American history.

By the same token, while people may not necessarily remember a good response, they never forget a bad one.

A classic example of this was the response of another New York mayor, John Lindsay, to an unexpected blizzard in 1969. His failure to dig the city out and keep vital services running essentially put an end to his political career.

When Hurricane Irma struck Florida in 2017 then-Gov. Rick Scott (R) acquitted himself relatively well, issuing updates and successfully managing evacuations and then the post-storm clean-up. There were no major or glaring failures in his decisionmaking and response.

The same could not be said of his response to the Big Bloom of red tide that tormented Florida’s Gulf coast in 2018. Then, his bumbling response and public frustration led to him actually being hounded from a rally by an angry crowd in Venice and fleeing in his campaign bus.

His successful handling of Irma was no issue in his 2018 Senate bid, while his red tide response hurt him, if not sufficiently to keep him from winning.

Hurricane Ian will be DeSantis’ first real big test. Until now he was dealing with human events that he could fudge, spin or manipulate to his advantage. Putting migrants on a plane did not take a genius of organization.

But natural disasters are forces beyond the ability of politicians to bend to their will. They are relentless and pitiless. Politicians can fail spectacularly in confronting them.

One of the most glaring examples of such a failure came in February 2021 when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) abandoned his state for a vacation trip to Cancun, Mexico. He left behind savage winter storms and freezes that knocked out electric power and cut off drinking water to millions of suffering Texans. Recognized at the airport, he became the target of fury and mockery, leaving a blot on his career that will likely never be erased.

So what should Floridians look for in their elected officials now and how should they be judged? Some criteria are:

Engagement: Are the officials fully engaged, alert and aware of events and developments?

Communication: Are officials communicating vital information effectively to constituents and citizens?

Presence: Are officials present where they are needed and where they can most effectively respond?

Decisionmaking: This may be hard for citizens on the ground to judge in real time but are officials making clear, rational, effective decisions given the information in their possession? These decisions must withstand scrutiny after the event.

Compassion: This is a very subjective quality but it’s one that is very important both for political careers and for the morale of disaster victims. Do officials seem to care what has happened to people as a result of the disaster? This requires walking a very fine line between genuine sympathy and blatant exploitation of tragedy.

Effectiveness: Executives, especially top elected officials like governors, county executives and mayors, need to not only weather the storm, they have to successfully manage the cleanup and recovery. Do they marshal the forces and obtain the resources and funding to do that?

It’s also in the post-disaster phase that legislative officials like members of Congress have a vital role to play. For example, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) made no effort to get any funding for his district when he had the chance to submit earmark requests to Congress. Will he similarly ignore his district’s people this time should they need assistance in the wake of Hurricane Ian?

A disaster—or even a threat short of a disaster—tests everyone. People have a right to expect the best from leaders they have elected who are seeking their next vote.

Hurricane Ian is coming at a politically sensitive time in Florida. The response could have a major impact on the future of the state and the country. Every citizen should be alert not only to the storm and its dangers but to the way it is handled by those in office.

______________________

To learn more about past disasters and responses, see the author’s book: Masters of Disaster: The political and leadership lessons of America’s greatest disasters.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

Hurricane Katrina vs. Hurricane Ida: Two storms, two presidents and two very different responses

President Joe Biden is briefed by FEMA officials on the danger of Hurricane Ida. (Photo: White House)

Sept. 3, 2021 by David Silverberg

Hurricane Ida shrieked onto the Louisiana coast on Sunday, Aug. 29, 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina made a similar landfall in 2005.

Many observers have made comparisons between the two hurricanes. Both were monster storms that wreaked terrible destruction and damage. Both resulted in extensive human suffering. Both afflicted multiple states.

However, to date there’s been little comparison of the responses to the two hurricanes by the sitting presidents and their administrations.

Hurricane Katrina struck during the presidency of George W. Bush. Hurricane Ida arrived during the presidency of Joe Biden.

As similar as the storms may be, the responses could not be more different.

“Katrina conjures impressions of disorder, incompetence, and the sense that government let down its citizens,” Bush himself wrote in his 2010 memoir, Decision Points.

In contrast, to date Biden has shown himself engaged, focused and effective. His administration was on alert and moved into action immediately.

Southwest Floridians in particular should take note of all this. The region has been lucky so far this year in avoiding hurricanes and damaging storms but the season is by no means over. Some Floridians, their elected officials and their governor instinctively disparage the federal government and attack this president. But if a storm comes that flattens the Paradise Coast the way Hurricane Ida flattened the homes of Louisiana, they will be able to look to a federal government and a president that is ready, willing and able to help them—so unlike the situation in 2005.

It’s worth comparing key aspects of the two events to see how far we have come.

Run-up to the storm

In 2005 the Bush administration was certainly aware of the oncoming storm. However, Bush was on a month-long vacation at his ranch at Crawford, Texas. On the day Katrina made landfall he traveled to Arizona for a brief, airport tarmac greeting with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and a town hall meeting at a resort and country club in El Mirage. He was promoting legislative changes to the Medicare program. He then went to California where he spoke before a crowd of military personnel at the Coronado naval base. Then he returned to Air Force One and flew back to his ranch.

In looking back in his 2008 memoir What Happened, Scott McClellan, Bush’s press secretary, was critical of the administration’s distant, almost lackadaisical approach: “The problem lay in our mind-set,” he recalled.

“Our White House team had already weathered many disasters, from the hurricanes of the previous year all the way back to the unprecedented calamity of 9/11. As a result, we were probably a little numb (‘What, another tragedy?’) and perhaps a little complacent (‘We’ve been through this before.’). We assumed that local and federal officials would do their usual yeoman’s work at minimizing the devastation, much as the more seasoned Florida officials had done the year before, and we recalled how President Bush had excelled at reassuring and comforting the nation in the wake of past calamities. Instead of planning and acting for the potential worst-case scenario, we took a chance that Katrina would not be as unmanageable, overwhelming, or catastrophic as it turned out. So we allowed our institutional response to go on autopilot.”

Sixteen years later, on Aug. 28, the administration was alert and mobilized for the storm. At the White House, Biden—who was at work—was briefed by Kenneth Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center on the storm itself. Along with Deanne Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), he spoke with the governors of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi to discuss their needs. He signed an emergency declaration for Louisiana in advance of the storm’s landfall.

Addressing the people of the area, he warned: “Pay attention and be prepared. Have supplies for your household on hand.  Follow the guidance from local authorities.  And if you have to move to shelter, make sure you wear a mask and try to keep some distance because we’re still facing the highly contagious Delta variant as well.”

Unengagement versus engagement

In 2005 Bush seemed detached and unengaged from Katrina and its impact. His decisionmaking appeared sluggish and reactive, always several steps behind events—as he himself admitted.

“The response was not only flawed but, as I said at the time, unacceptable,” Bush wrote in Decision Points. “As the leader of the federal government, I should have recognized the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster. I prided myself on my ability to make crisp and effective decisions. Yet in the days after Katrina, that didn’t happen. The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions. It was that I took too long to decide.”

In 2021 the administration—and indeed, the whole federal government—mobilized to help the affected area with an impressive effort.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm FEMA delivered 4.5 million meals, 3.6 million liters of water, 250 generators and rushed additional ambulances into affected areas, according to official figures.

FEMA and the Small Business Administration (SBA) immediately began helping disaster survivors, including providing grants to help pay for housing, home repairs, property losses, medical expenses and even funeral expenses.

A program called Critical Needs Assistance was activated by FEMA to give people left completely destitute $500. It reached 31,000 Louisiana households in the very first days after the storm passed.

Currently, the SBA is issuing low-interest loans to businesses, non-profit organizations, homeowners and renters affected by the storm. Federal officials in mobile units are helping victims apply for the assistance.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is helping families, aiding with mortgage payments and insurance as well as direct housing.

The US Army Corps of Engineers immediately began working to get houses into habitable shape and distribute tarps for damaged roofs. Some 134,000 tarps were provided by Sept. 2. The Corps also rushed in teams to aid with debris removal and temporary housing.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) set up a 250-bed medical station in New Orleans, established a medical evacuation site at the airport and sent a team to a hospital in Thibodaux, La., the only fully-working hospital in its region.

Other federal agencies pitching in included the US Coast Guard, the Department of Defense and the National Guard Bureau, which contributed personnel, vehicles, aircraft and watercraft.

Biden was also involved in coordinating electrical power restoration with energy company executives, authorizing military reconnaissance flights and the use of satellite surveillance to pinpoint problems.

In addition to these measures, federal workers immediately began clearing roads and restoring transportation and communications. Red tape is being cut and regulations streamlined.

All this effort is light years away from the response of 2005. It demonstrates what an activated federal government, with involved leadership, can accomplish in the face of a disaster.

Unseasoned versus seasoned

President George W. Bush tells FEMA Administrator Michael Brown he’s doing “a heck of a job.” (Photo: AP)

In 2005 FEMA was headed by Michael Brown, a lawyer, former commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association, a failed Republican congressional candidate and a Bush campaign operative.

While Brown’s qualifications were criticized after Katrina, in fact he had handled some major disasters while at FEMA, notably the Sept. 11, 2001 aftermath and the four-hurricane season of 2004. He began his federal service as general counsel for FEMA and rose from there, rising to  undersecretary, where he oversaw a number of internal FEMA offices like the National Incident Management System Integration Center, the National Disaster Medical System and the Nuclear Incident Response Team.

So Brown was hardly a complete novice when it came to disasters and emergency management.

But Brown was in way over his head during Katrina. Although Bush praised him for “doing a heckuva job,” FEMA’s inability to anticipate, react and organize the response resulted in a spectacle of chaos, deprivation and incompetence. Brown repeatedly gave television interviews in which he expressed ignorance of the most basic facts on the ground and the suffering of New Orleanians.

He was ultimately fired in the midst of the response and replaced with retired Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen.  

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell (Photo: FEMA)

Today the administrator of FEMA is Deanne Criswell, a 21-year veteran firefighter. A member of the Colorado Air National Guard, she served in Iraq and Afghanistan. During a previous stint at FEMA she was leader of an Incident Management Assistance Team. She has tackled everything from wildfires, to severe droughts, catastrophic floods and even helped re-unite evacuated families 16 years ago after Hurricane Katrina.

Immediately before being appointed FEMA administrator by Biden, Criswell was New York City Commissioner for Emergency Management. There, she coordinated the city’s response to emergencies like blackouts, fires and power outages all while handling the COVID pandemic and working to prevent collapse of the healthcare system.

So when Hurricane Ida arrived, FEMA and the country had a seasoned, experienced and truly expert first responder at the helm, appointed by Biden. It is making a world of difference.

Flyover versus ground truth

President George W. Bush flies over a devastated New Orleans on Aug. 31, 2005. (Photo: White House)

An iconic image of Bush and Hurricane Katrina was Bush staring out the window of Air Force One, rigid and frozen as he gazes down at the destruction of New Orleans. He chose to fly over the destruction on his return from his vacation in Crawford to Washington, DC.

It was his first look at what the storm had done but the message it sent the nation was one of aloofness and detachment that seemed to sum up the entire federal response.

Bush later tried to make up for that impression. He visited New Orleans 13 times in the years that followed. He gave a speech from the city’s Jackson Square where he pledged $10.5 billion federal dollars for the city’s rebuilding.

But he never fully overcame that initial image of uninvolvement from the flyover.

“Bush needed to show that he was in control. But he also needed to show that he cared—that he understood the situation and shared Americans’ sense of horror and anger, that he was determined to do whatever it took to make the bureaucracy respond,” McClellan wrote. “The flyover images showed none of this. And while privately Bush was quickly becoming more engaged, it was too little, too late.”

Bush reflected in his memoir: “I should have urged Governor [Kathleen] Blanco and Mayor [Ray] Nagin to evacuate New Orleans sooner. I should have come straight back to Washington from California on Day Two or stopped in Baton Rouge on Day Three. I should have done more to signal my determination to help, the way I did in the days after 9/11.”

Biden, by contrast, made a point of visiting FEMA headquarters in Washington during the storm to talk to Criswell directly and thank the responders at FEMA and around the country managing Ida. As of this writing he is scheduled to visit New Orleans today, Sept. 3, to see the damage and hear from the officials and people on the ground about their needs and requirements.

President Joe Biden visits FEMA headquarters in Washington, DC in the runup to Hurricane Ida’s landfall. (Photo: FEMA)

Visiting the scene of a disaster is always a dicey decision for politicians. They don’t want to seem to be exploiting the tragedy or hindering the urgent response. At the same time they want to see the situation for themselves and show their concern—and also get credit for their leadership.

Many times their solution is to fly over a site as Bush did. It gives them an overview of the entire disaster and it can be useful. However, unless it’s combined with executive action and a genuine sense of caring for the afflicted, it can backfire, as it did in Bush’s case. It takes a skilled hand and good judgment to make a disaster visit work constructively, lifting the spirits of victims, while advancing the response.

But most of all, it takes a human being who actually empathizes with other human beings and wants to alleviate their suffering that makes leadership in a disaster effective.

Then, now—and tomorrow

More than just 16 years separate the responses to Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ida. They are light years apart in presidential attentiveness, competence, care and reaction.

In his engagement and decisiveness and willingness to support the professionals and experts, Biden is demonstrating the presidential abilities that got him to the Oval Office. To some extent it is making up for the chaotic spectacle of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

More importantly and immediately, though, Biden’s involvement will have profound effects on the afflicted areas, which now stretch from the bayous of Louisiana to the subways of New York City. This was a monster storm and an epic disaster and it will take years to restore the damage it did. But by being engaged and mobilizing the entire federal government and its expertise, a start has been made just as the winds and rain are dying down.

Southwest Floridians should take note and appreciate this. They may need that help next.


For a full history of past disaster responses, see the author’s book: Masters of Disaster: The political and leadership lessons of America’s greatest disasters.

For a detailed examination of the response to Hurricane Katrina, see:

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

The Donalds Dossier and DC Roundup: Donalds discovers his district; Steube denies gold to the blue

A sign at the entrance to Delnor-Wiggins State Park warns of red tide during the Big Bloom of 2018. (Photo: Author)

March 22, 2021 by David Silverberg

Updated March 24 with new Stafford Act link

Last week Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) took a break from his verbal attacks on President Joe Biden, House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) and Democrats to actually pay attention to his district.

The attention came in the form of his first legislative proposal, a re-tread of a bill introduced in the previous Congress by his predecessor Francis Rooney, to ensure that the government keeps monitoring harmful algal blooms (HABs) even in the event of a government shutdown.

Donalds’ Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act of 2021 (House Resolution (HR) 1954) would, according to its official language, “amend the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998 to clarify that during a lapse in appropriations certain services relating to the Harmful Algal Bloom Operational Forecasting System are excepted services under the Anti-Deficiency Act.”

The need for the legislation became apparent during former President Donald Trump’s 35-day shutdown of the government from Dec. 22, 2018 to Jan. 25, 2019 in a battle with Congress over funding his border wall. Following 2018’s severe red tide off the Florida Gulf coast, Rooney tried to build a coordinated response to future HABs.

In June 2019 he introduced the Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act (HR 3297) so that monitoring of HABs would not be interrupted. That bill gained 16 cosponsors, 12 Democrats and four Republicans. However, it never made it out of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

Donalds’ bill was introduced with six cosponsors. Four are Republicans: Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-1-Fla.), Bill Posey (R-8-Fla.), Anthony Gonzalez (R-16-Ohio), Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.); and two Democrats: Reps. Charlie Crist (D-13-Fla.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-13-Mich.). Tlaib, a member of the liberal Democratic “squad,” also cosponsored Rooney’s bill.

Like its predecessor, Donalds’ bill has been referred to the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology as well as the Committee on Natural Resources.

Analysis: What to watch

Voters should watch to see if Donalds can move this bill out of its committees and onto the floor during the current session. While Rooney sat on the Science Committee, Donalds is not on either of the committees of jurisdiction, so his climb is steeper.

This will be especially interesting to see given his attacks on Pelosi. In the previous Congress, Pelosi advanced Rooney’s legislation on offshore oil drilling to full House consideration. She might not be equally inclined to move this legislation this time.

The need for this legislation is less urgent than it was under President Donald Trump, who thought little of shutting down the government as a negotiating tactic (or in a temper tantrum). With Democrats in charge of both houses of Congress and a sane president in the White House, the probability of a government shutdown, at least over the next four years, is far lower than in the past.

From a substantive standpoint, of far greater importance to Southwest Florida is another measure introduced by Rooney: amending the Stafford Act to include HABs.

The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act defines which natural disasters are subject to federal emergency treatment. Algal blooms are not included. If Southwest Florida suffers another Big Bloom summer like 2018’s, the area’s governments, merchants and residents would be eligible for federal emergency funds and support if the Stafford Act is amended. Rooney tried to make this change with his Protecting Local Communities from Harmful Algal Blooms Act but it remained undone during his tenure. For Donalds, however, this kind of legislation might clash with his small-government, you’re-on-your-own ideology.

From a political standpoint, Donalds’ new HAB legislation may help close a gap that was threatening to widen into a vulnerability: his almost complete disinterest in the district and its needs. He received some minor, uncritical coverage of his bill in the local media, which was no doubt helpful to him in changing this perception.

On the record

Since our last Donalds Dossier, in major legislation Donalds toed the Republican Party line. He has:

Steube: No gold for the blue

Capitol Police try to hold back rioters during the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection.

In other action by a Southwest Florida representative, Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.), a vehement ever-Trumper and extreme conservative who represents the area from Punta Gorda to Venice and east to Okeechobee, chose to oppose honoring those who protected him during the Jan. 6 insurrection and attack on the Capitol building.

Steube’s action came after Pelosi proposed awarding three Congressional Gold Medals, Congress’ highest civilian honor, to the Capitol Police and the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police. The third medal, along with a plaque listing all the agencies that protected the Capitol that day, will be displayed in the Smithsonian Institution.

Pelosi’s sponsorship of the legislation was a rare move in the chamber, signifying its solemnity.

“January 6th was one of the darkest and deadliest days in American history,” Pelosi said in a speech on the floor.  “The waging of a violent insurrection against the United States Capitol and against our very democracy on that day was a profound horror that nearly defies comprehension.  That day, the country witnessed the gleeful desecration of our Temple of Democracy.”

While Jan. 6 was a day of “horror and heartbreak,” she said, “because of these courageous men and women, it was also a moment of extraordinary heroism.  That day the United States Capitol Police force put themselves between us and the violence.  They risked their safety and their lives for others with the utmost selflessness, and they did so because they were patriots – the type of Americans who heard the call to serve and answered it – putting country above self.” 

When the time came for a vote last Wednesday, March 17, Steube and 11 of his Republican colleagues didn’t agree. Instead, Steube blamed Pelosi for the insurrection and attack, saying in a statement:

“The unprecedented leadership failures of Speaker Pelosi, the U.S. Capitol Police Chief and the Sergeant at Arms put their officers, Members of Congress and the public at risk on January 6. They had the opportunity to call in the National Guard days before and refused to do so for ‘optics.’ There is no reason that Congress should now award the highest civilian medal to leaders who failed in protecting the Capitol, which led to their resignation and the shooting of an unarmed woman, just so Speaker Pelosi can check the box and say she supports law enforcement a week after Pelosi-led Democrats attacked the police by ending their qualified immunity and taking away their protective equipment.”

Rep. Greg Steube

Despite voting against the gold medals Steube maintained that he’s a “staunch defender” of law enforcement and opposed any movements to defund the police.

When the roll was called, the bill, HR 1085, passed by an overwhelming vote of 413 to 12, that included the Republican leadership.

In addition to Steube, the other nay votes were: Reps. Andy Biggs (R-5-Ariz.), Michael Cloud (R-27-Texas), Andrew Clyde (R-9-Ga.), Matt Gaetz (R-1-Fa.), Louis Gohmert (R-1-Texas), Bob Good (R-5-Va.), Lance Gooden (R-5-Texas), Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-14-Ga.), Andy Harris (R-1-Md.), Thomas Massie (R-4-Ky.), John Rose (R-6-Tenn.).

Commentary

Steube’s vote in this matter is outrageous, disgusting and shameful. His rationale is absurd. His indifference to the deaths of the officer who lost his life, Brian Sicknick, and those who took their own lives subsequently is despicable. He has forfeited any legitimate claim—or future claim—to be a defender of law enforcement. He and his colleagues deserve to be called “the dirty dozen” for rejecting this recognition for the police officers who stood their ground against the most repulsive attack on the American government in history.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

Editorial: Fiscal responsibility for all

06-06-19 Trump golfing amidst disaster(Photo illustration)

Reps. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) have taken a principled stand against providing relief to all the Americans suffering from natural disasters by voting against a $19.1 billion disaster relief appropriation bill.

The bill has passed both the House and Senate and now awaits President Donald Trump’s signature.

Rooney opposed the measure because he called it “completely fiscally irresponsible.” Steube opposed it because he “could not in good conscience” vote for a bill he called “filled with outrageous spending.”

The commitment of these gentlemen to principle and fiscal responsibility is admirable. In that spirit one presumes we can expect to see a measure from them curtailing President Donald Trump’s golf excursions, which to date have cost the American people at least $102 million. Talk about being “fiscally irresponsible” and “outrageous spending!”

We look forward to Rooney and Steube’s efforts. In the meantime, the people of the Florida panhandle, the homeless and destitute victims of storms, floods, wildfires, volcanoes and hurricanes—indeed, all Americans—will be watching and waiting.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg

Rooney votes against disaster relief

06-04-19-Hurricane_Michael_damageDamage from last year’s Hurricane Michael in the Florida Panhandle.   (Photo: Bret Bostock, Wikimedia Commons)

467 days (1 year, 3 months, 13 days) since Rep. Francis Rooney has met constituents in an open, public, town hall forum

June 4, 2019 by David Silverberg

Updated June 5 with Steube, Gaetz votes and Patronis statement. 

Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) joined 57 Republican colleagues yesterday, June 3, in rejecting federal aid for areas hard-hit by last year’s disasters, including the Florida panhandle devastated by Hurricane Michael.

The bill, Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act, 2019 (House Resolution 2157) passed by a vote of 354-58.

By contrast, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.), joined the 354-member bipartisan majority in passing the $19.1 billion measure. He was joined by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-1-Fla.), a normally staunch, pro-Trump conservative, whose district covers the most affected areas of the panhandle.

The bill provides assistance to people and jurisdictions pounded by Hurricanes Michael and Florence, other storms, floods, tornadoes, typhoons, volcanic activity, snowstorms, and wildfires during 2018 and 2019 by providing funding to virtually all the agencies of the federal government.

In a statement on his vote, Rooney explained that he opposed the measure because the bill exceeded the administration’s initial funding request:

“It has become all too common for Congress to use disaster funding to break through spending caps that are in place,” declared the statement. “There are legitimate needs for funding to assist with recovery from horrific natural disasters that affected Florida and other states around the country, however I could not support a bill that is completely fiscally irresponsible.”

Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.), whose district includes a large portion of south-central Florida, also voted against the bill for similar reasons. “While I’m glad the panhandle received the funding it desperately needed, I could not in good conscience vote for the Supplemental Appropriation which was filled with outrageous spending and no plan to pay for it,” Steube said in a statement. “I ran for Congress refusing to add to the national debt, and this bill had a high price tag with no offset.”

Jimmy Patronis, Florida’s Republican chief financial officer and a native of Panama City, which was hard-hit by Hurricane Michael, was outraged by the nay votes.

“If I was in their district, I’d vote ‘em out,” Patronis told reporters in Tallahassee. “Those individuals that do not realize the harm and suffering that’s happening in Northwest Florida and the recovery that we’re trying to endure right now, for them to put themselves over the better good of the recovery of other citizens in the United States is shameful. Unfortunately, it’s a round world and they’ll probably get what’s coming to them somewhere, somehow.”

The Senate approved the measure by an 85 to 8 vote on May 22, with both of Florida’s Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, voting in favor of it. The bill passed by the House yesterday has now gone to the president for signature. However, in a since-deleted tweet yesterday, Trump erroneously stated that the bill would be going to the Senate.

Trump initially opposed the bill for providing money for Puerto Rico disaster relief and pushed for $4.5 billion for his wall on the southwestern border. However, while he publicly relented on his opposition, during the congressional Memorial Day recess, as lawmakers in the House tried to expedite the measure with a “unanimous consent” agreement, three Republican lawmakers: Reps. Chip Roy (R-21-Texas), Thomas Massie (R-4-Ky.) and John Rose (R-6-Tenn.), refused their consent, meaning that the bill—and the people it would benefit—had to await yesterday’s formal vote.

The bill will provide a wide variety of assistance across federal agencies to aid those harmed by the disasters.

While Southwest Florida is not specifically mentioned in the legislation, the bill appropriates money to combat flood and storm damage, which will likely benefit the region. The US Army Corps of Engineers is appropriated $1 billion “for necessary expenses to prepare for flood, hurricane and other natural disasters and support emergency operations, repairs, and other activities in response to such disasters,” as well as $35 million to investigate means of reducing future flood and storm damage.

Liberty lives in light

©2019 by David Silverberg