When Hurricane Matthew was churning in the Atlantic Ocean as a Category 4 storm, Gov. Rick Scott braced for what could have been the worst crisis yet in a summer filled with them.
“I worried the whole time that even though the track was off our coast that it would turn and have a direct hit at some point,” Scott told reporters in Jacksonville on Saturday.
While it didn’t make landfall in Florida, the hurricane had other devastating effects. At least five people are confirmed dead because of the storm, more than 1 million customers lost power (including more than 169,000 as of Monday), commerce ceased with one of the state’s most vital seaports, and more than 20,000 people sought refuge in emergency shelters at the height of the storm.
Some schools in northeast Florida still had not re-opened by Monday. Evacuation orders have ended, all airports and sea ports are reopened and National Guard troops have been deactivated.
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Now comes the recovery, where the state will assess the financial damage to homes and businesses, many of which are still dealing with flood waters after record storm surges in Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Daytona Beach.
Scott now finds himself open to criticism that his blunt warnings that the storm “will kill you” went too far.
“It was a little over the top,” said State Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat.
But others say Scott’s mobilizing record numbers of National Guard troops before the storm, pressuring the federal government for recovery funds even before the storm was out of Florida, suspending tolls for people evacuating and returning home, and putting utility companies on notice showed leadership.
“You have to set the right tone,” said State Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, whose own law office had power restored on Monday. “The threat was real and imminent.”
Scott has never looked completely comfortable appearing on TV during his short political career, but during and after Matthew he seized on the opportunity, emphasizing the need to share resources, to restore power as quickly as possible and to rebuild the state’s battered infrastructure. While other Republicans have been uncomfortably talking about Donald Trump and his comments about women, Scott, who is chairman of a super political action committee backing Trump, has been able to avoid the same questions, saying he could not talk politics during a crisis.
The governor who has been so critical of the federal government struck a much more conciliatory tone. He praised Brigadier Gen. C. David Turner, the top official of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for several South Atlantic states, including Florida.
Scott’s work ethic was on full display. He typically rises at 5 a.m. and maintains a hectic travel schedule even in ordinary circumstances. During the storm Scott worked the phone with sheriffs, school superintendents, electric utility officials and even President Barack Obama and FEMA. For three straight days as the storm passed, Scott never left the hardest hit areas from Daytona Beach to Jacksonville.
“I think we’ve got the hardest working governor in the country,” Duval County Sheriff Mike Williams said of Scott.
Scott seemed to acknowledge that he could face scrutiny for sounding the alarm like he did. During his six years in office, Florida has never faced a direct hit from such a big hurricane, which Scott said had him worried about complacency.
“Are people going to take this seriously enough?” Scott said.
Herald/Times reporters Steve Bousquet and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.