For many Floridians, Gov. Rick Scott’s Navy hat might be an unwelcome sight because of an association with impending doom or deadly disasters.
The navy Navy cap and the Navy vet have been inseparable as Scott has managed the state’s responses to hurricanes, floods and forest fires.
With just a few months remaining in his term as Governor, Scott and his seemingly omnipresent cap were put to a massive test after Hurricane Michael pummeled the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend regions.
The monster storm made landfall Wednesday in Mexico Beach, eviscerating the beachfront community, reducing neighboring towns to rubble and killing almost all communication in Panama City.
After touring the area Thursday, Scott likened the devastation to a miniature version of the havoc wreaked by his young grandsons.
“When they get finished playing with stuff, it’s all over the place and there’s no order to it. That’s what it was like. There’s a lot of stuff everywhere,” Scott told reporters, saying Mexico Beach appeared to be the hardest-hit area.
The monstrous storm prompted Scott to take a hiatus from his campaign against incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. At the Governor’s request, a CNN debate between the two men scheduled for Tuesday evening has been postponed.
While Scott may be taking time off from campaigning, some of his opponents aren’t pausing.
Scott and his hat drew the wrath of VoteVets, a progressive PAC based in Oregon, which on Friday unleashed a $4 million ad buy targeting the Republican.
The ad focuses on Scott’s role at the Columbia/HCA hospital chain, where he was forced out amid an investigation into federal health care fraud. He was never charged in the case, but the company paid a then-record $1.7 billion fine.
In the ad, Navy vet Alan Madison says he and other vets “got cheated” by Scott.
“Governor, this hat represents what the Navy stands for — honor and integrity. My question for you sir, is where’s yours?” Madison asks.
Scott’s attention, however, was centered on the folks hardest hit by the storm, and the crews deployed to the area.
“Your heart goes out to them,” he told reporters, sharing an “emotional experience” he had with young National Guard member from the Panhandle.
“He didn’t know that his apartment was demolished. … He didn’t know that his mom was in the hospital,” Scott told reporters Thursday, adding that he and his team took the guardsman to the hospital to visit his mother.
“He was very emotional about that. … But he was doing his job,” Scott said.
Recovery starts amid ‘unimaginable’ destruction
Hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses lost electricity as rescue and utility crew members spread out across coastal and rural Panhandle communities to respond to the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Michael.
Michael knocked out electricity to more than 90 percent of customers in Tallahassee, where crews from Missouri, Arkansas and elsewhere worked throughout the day Friday cutting trees, clearing streets and getting the lights back on.
Gulf Power, which provides electricity in the Panhandle, said Friday that customers in the “hardest hit areas should prepare to be without power for weeks.” Those areas include Bay, Holmes, Washington and Jackson counties.
Scott called the destruction from Wednesday’s storm “unimaginable,” as “homes are gone, businesses are gone.”
A state emergency-management official said all hospitals in the impacted region reported some form of “critical failure” — water and sewage problems or infrastructure issues such as crumbling walls — that required patients to be relocated and medical field hospitals to be set up.
The official said that after Hurricane Irma in September 2017, a field hospital was required in the Florida Keys for a year, and similar situations may be required with Michael.
Similar issues arose at nursing homes, and crews flew supplies to Florida State Hospital at Chattahoochee, which serves patients with mental illness.
Meanwhile, the state was expecting a surge in humanitarian needs, from a lack of food and water to housing.
Scott traveled Thursday afternoon with the Florida National Guard to Panama City and Mexico Beach, where Michael came ashore with 155 mph maximum sustained winds, the strongest ever recorded in the region.
Scott, who expressed frustration about people dismissing evacuation orders on Tuesday as Michael rapidly grew into a Category 4 storm, told evacuees not to return home as roads remain closed by flooding, downed trees and power lines.
“It’s going to take some time to survey and clear all the roads,” Scott said.
President Donald Trump granted a request for federal assistance for 14 counties: Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Hamilton, Jackson, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Suwannee, Taylor and Wakulla.
Scott said he talked to Trump early Thursday.
“He is committed to making every federal resource available to help the recovery,” Scott said.
Michael packs trauma for patients
More than 30 health-care facilities had to be evacuated as Hurricane Michael damaged buildings and knocked out electricity in the Panhandle, state emergency management officials said Friday.
Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Justin Senior told The News Service of Florida that several small critical-care access hospitals were evacuated before Hurricane Michael made landfall.
Health-care facilities, including the 323-bed Bay Medical Sacred Heart hospital in Panama City, were still in the process of evacuation Friday morning.
Also, an estimated 1,600 residents had been evacuated or were in the process of being evacuated from 14 nursing homes, according to the Florida Health Care Association, a statewide nursing-home group. Ten nursing homes were evacuated before Michael hit, while evacuations began after the storm at the other four facilities.
Senior said all the patients in the intensive-care unit at Bay Medical Sacred Heart had been evacuated and moved to other hospitals with the assistance of ambulances. Senior said as of Friday morning that there were “more staff than patients” still at the hospital.
“They were hoping to ride it out,” Senior said of the hospital. “It’s very localized, the damage. I don’t know if it was the storm itself or a tornado.”
Bay Medical Sacred Heart’s website featured a large message Friday morning saying, “For families wishing to locate patients who have been transferred to other hospitals, please call: 1-888-727-4568.”
During a stop Thursday at the State Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who lives in Panama City, lamented the damage caused to health-care facilities in the area.
“The way the storm hit, we’re going to have approximately 10 hospitals that are going to have to be evacuated,” Patronis said. “Gulf Coast (Regional) Medical Center where my kids were born, Bay Medical Center where I was born, they’re empty, because they can’t support their mission.”
Senior said Friday the state will shift its focus from helping transfer patients to ensuring that facilities that were evacuated are safe to reopen.
“People think of us as having doctors and nurses,” he said. “But we have architects and engineers and we need to make sure we make the reopening process as smooth as possible and as safe as possible.”
Story of the week
Hurricane Michael, the strongest storm to ever hit the Florida Panhandle, made landfall Wednesday in Mexico Beach with 155 mph maximum sustained winds.
Quote of the week
“There’s just stuff everywhere.” — Gov. Scott, after surveying damage in Mexico Beach on Thursday.