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South Florida’s mayors handled their business in different ways Thursday as Hurricane Irma inched closer.
From the county’s emergency operations center in Doral, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez expanded evacuation orders for tens of thousands of residents. On Miami Beach, Philip Levine gave cable news interviews warning about the deadly consequences of a “nuclear” storm. And in an airport in Buenos Aires, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado waited for a return flight to South Florida after leaving for business in Argentina over the weekend rather than waiting out a major storm with an uncertain path.
In a region where hurricanes are a constant threat, the delicate dance around preparing for a storm and recovering afterward has been done by politicians for decades. But throw in the potential for catastrophic damage — and deliver the hurricane to South Florida’s doorstep late during a local election year — and every decision becomes magnified as politicos hold press conferences, court voters with toilet paper and canned goods, and make what could literally be life-or-death decisions.
Make the right moves and look like a leader. Make the wrong moves and open yourself up to endless criticism.
“No responsible elected official, least of all a mayor, would leave when you have these kinds of projections,” Joe Carollo, a former Miami mayor now running for city commission against Regalado’s son, said Thursday of the current mayor.
Hurricane Irma, expected to pass over or near South Florida this weekend as a Category 5 storm, has already provided nearly a week’s worth of press conferences for the public officials in the region and state.
Early on, Gov. Rick Scott declared an emergency across all of Florida’s 67 counties. He has been traveling the Florida Keys and South Florida in a Navy ball cap ever since, pressing for more gasoline ahead of the storm and warning people to flee from coastal areas.
It’s a critical scenario for the state’s Republican chief executive. He’s widely known to be mulling a 2018 run for U.S. Senate against Democrat incumbent Bill Nelson, who himself attended one of Scott’s press conferences in Doral.
To be clear, there’s been no campaigning by the governor, at least nothing overt. The same could be said of Levine, who is pondering a run at the governor’s office. He has been a regular on cable news talking about the city’s preparations and warning residents and tourists to leave before it’s too late.
“This is a serious, serious storm. I’ve called it a nuclear hurricane,” he said on CNN, with no mention of North Korea.
Making official decisions and talking to the media in times of disaster are part of the job description for governors and mayors. Declared candidates, on the other hand, have a trickier situation. Do they keep campaigning and risk offending voters worried about their property and lives and not who they’ll vote for in a few weeks? Or do they call off the campaign and risk falling behind or even appearing clueless by saying and doing nothing?
In the race for state Senate District 40, where the vote is just weeks away, Republican Jose Felix Diaz and Democrat Annette Taddeo each said this week that they’d suspended their campaigns for the duration of the storm and promised to pull advertisements as soon as possible. Both said they’d focus on emergency preparations.
On Miami Beach, mayoral candidate Dan Gelber went as far as to announce that he was picking up his plastic yard signs lest they become projectiles — not a likely path to gaining votes. Leaders in the Florida Legislature canceled a return to Tallahassee to begin working on their 2018 legislative session, saying emergency preparations were more important.
Then, there were the candidates for Miami’s fourth City Commission district, who hope to be elected in November. With forecasts of hurricane winds blanketing Miami becoming more confident Thursday, opponents Manolo Reyes and Ralph Rosado each visited the Smathers senior apartments in Flagami to deliver toilet paper and canned food to tenants.
Rosado said he had assumed his previously scheduled event would be canceled, but audibled and replaced perfumes and chocolates with storm supplies when he was urged to come anyway. While there, he said he was told most the building’s tenants plan to ride out the storm in their apartments.
“The most important thing is for people to be safe and for people to have resources and something to eat,” said Reyes, who purchased 480 cans each of Chef Boyardee Vienna Sausage and Sedano’s Maria crackers with his personal Visa card to pass out with campaign volunteers at Smathers and another residential building.
“Whatever [political] benefit you’re going to take is irrelevant.”
Maybe. But ask former President George W. Bush if the consequences of a political misstep during a hurricane — Katrina — are to be dismissed.
For Regalado, who plans to be available to the media Friday after flying back into Miami with his wife and the city’s police chief, he’ll have to wait and see if voters hold his truancy against him. He is leaving office in two months, but is campaigning for a $400 million general obligation bond on his way out the door, and his son and daughter are running for City Commission and Congress, respectively.
On Wednesday, he dismissed the relevance of his presence in Miami for storm prep, saying his role would be through the media, not logistics. On Friday, reached by text as he waited in the airport, he said the city is ready — at least, as ready as Miami can be for a Category 5 hurricane.
“The city is ready. We did what we had to,” Regalado texted. “But it depends on how hard we are hit.”