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DeSantis — and Florida — in the storm spotlight

Workers board the windows of a restaurant as Hurricane Dorian continues to make its way toward the Florida coast on Monday in Indialantic, Florida. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

TALLAHASSEE — Hurricane Dorian’s looming threat poses a familiar test for Florida’s nascent Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, who touted his connection to President Donald Trump as a reason for Floridians to vote for him last fall.

Dealing with the complexities — and politics — of natural disasters has enhanced the reputations of previous Florida governors, including Jeb Bush and Rick Scott, both fellow Republicans. Dorian is now a Category 4 storm and may reach Florida’s East Coast and points north along the Atlantic coast. The storm is requiring DeSantis to test-drive his administration’s emergency management capabilities amid the threat of widespread power outages, flooding and fatalities.

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DeSantis so far is handling his first major appearance in the hurricane spotlight, a rite of passage for Florida governors, well, amid high political stakes for the new governor.

“There is a stage being built by this natural disaster, just like a stage for a political rally,” said David Johnson, a Republican political consultant. “It’s often not of your own building, but you can determine how people feel. Even if they disagree with you on policy issues … they can like you because they trust you.”

DeSantis’ approval rating is near 60 percent eight months after taking office, making him one of the most popular governors in the country. It’s an enviable position, but things can change quickly at the well-traveled intersection of natural disasters and politics.

The governor said Monday that the threat from the storm led 72 nursing homes and assisted living facilities along Florida’s Atlantic coast to evacuate residents overnight, while at least 30 facilities have not remained in contact with the state.

Dorian is capable of producing hurricane-force winds up to 45 miles from its eye. Officials from the state Division of Emergency Management during a Monday morning meeting discussed the potential of the eye coming about 30 miles from Cape Canaveral.

On Friday, as Dorian threatened, DeSantis had brushed aside talk of political consequences.

“I don’t view it politically at all. We’re trying to protect the state, protect people,” the governor said.

As he prepares for the storm’s impact, one of the governor’s biggest allies is the president.

Trump played a big role in DeSantis’ surprise 2018 GOP primary victory, and the two remain close. DeSantis and Trump spoke several times last week as the storm approached. Trump has been tweeting about Dorian through the weekend.

The Trump administration has approved an emergency fuel waiver for Florida, signed off on federal assistance and green-lighted an emergency order authorizing FEMA to provide equipment and other resources.

Florida’s governor can’t control the weather. But he does play a pivotal role in how the state gears up and responds to the threat, and can be blamed if something goes wrong.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma nearly two years ago, 12 nursing home patients died after the power was knocked out and the temperature in the home began to rise. Four employees of the home were arrested this past week after a two-year investigation.

An attorney for one of the employees said administrators repeatedly called then Gov. Scott’s personal cell phone for help but never got a response. Scott, in a statement late last month, said nursing home administrators should have called 911.

Scott later pushed for rules requiring nursing homes to have backup generators or power sources, but more than half of the homes in the state have not fully implemented that mandate.

The DeSantis administration has made some tweaks to emergency preparation, while keeping intact some policies that drew fire under Scott.

DeSantis has maintained a policy that would keep major roadways open in two directions. Millions evacuated ahead of Irma in 2017, leading to massive traffic jams and calls for one-way flow of highways. Instead, state officials this week are calling on motorists to use highway shoulders in case of evacuations.

Bush’s handling of storms also offers a glimpse at the high-stakes political implications of hurricanes. In September 2004, the Bush administration dealt with hurricanes Charley, Ivan, Frances and Jeanne.

In the heat of a presidential race that featured Bush’s brother, George W. Bush, the president and the governor took high-profile tours of storm damage. Jeb Bush was seen as ably handling the hurricane mess, which helped his brother.

“George W. Bush may not have won Florida in 2004 if Jeb hadn’t handled the hurricanes so adeptly,” said Mike Grissom, former executive director of the Republican Party of Florida, in 2012, when Hurricane Isaac threatened the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

Jeb Bush, who guided the state through eight hurricanes over two years, said he made a major miscalculation in 1999 when he pushed for a hastily arranged evacuation in northeast Florida as Hurricane Floyd threatened, only to watch the storm run parallel along the east coast before making landfall in North Carolina.

During Hurricane Charley, Bush was in the middle of a press conference when advisers alerted him that he needed to halt evacuations and tell people to stay where they were, because the storm had suddenly altered its path.

“When we were really successful, a lot of people are able to take credit,” Bush said. “When it doesn’t work as well, you have to accept responsibility, even though you might have been marginally involved.”

He said Florida’s emergency teams have a “culture and traditions of excellence” that have remained in place no matter who is governor. “It’s the one place where government works really well at all levels,” Bush said.

He didn’t consider the political consequences when dealing with storms, but, he said, took full responsibility.

“Don’t blame others, don’t blame Washington,” he said.

Alan Levine, who led the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration during the George W. Bush administration, said political outcomes can result from a governor’s performance, but put it another way.

“We never thought of it in terms of politics,” he said. “Another word for politics is accountability.”

“If things are not handled well, they are held accountable,” he said, “sometimes at the ballot box.”

Arek Sarkissian contributed to this report.

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