Standing on the banks of a Cape Coral canal where homes were hit hard by Hurricane Ian, Gov. Ron DeSantis sent the message Monday that no matter the cost of repairs needed to restore electricity, water and transportation to the region, money is no object.
“Bottom line is, we need to all work together right now and we need to get people back on their feet,’‘ DeSantis said late Monday, as he stood in a suit and tie in front of washed out waterfront homes and battered boat docks.
He vowed to use state resources to subsidize the cost of out-of-state utility crews to help rebuild the broken energy grid and restore power to customers whose homes can receive it. He said the state has hired an engineering firm to work on repairing the broken water main in Lee County. And he announced that in addition to a temporary slow-speed bridge to restore vehicle traffic to the battered community of Pine Island, the state will also build a temporary bridge to reach Sanibel Island, where a section of the causeway was washed away.
“Part of the reason we’re able to do this is, yes, we have the record budget surplus, but since I’ve been governor, I worked with the Legislature to establish a Disaster Response Fund for the state of Florida — so we have $500 million budgeted for disasters,’‘ DeSantis said.
Of the 2.7 million residents who lost power during the storm, all but 531,000 have been restored, DeSantis said.
He acknowledged that the “more difficult restoration” will be to rebuild the electrical grid for the barrier islands and coastal communities whose electricity infrastructure was wiped out to an unknown number of homeowners and businesses.
The Florida Electric Cooperatives Association has agreed to work with the Lee County Electric Utility to rebuild the infrastructure that has been damaged, he said. And DeSantis announced that the state will provide any extra subsidy needed to reimburse utility crews from outside of the state to work as long as needed to repair the grid.
“I want Lee County to be the lineman capital of the world for the next, however many, days,’‘ he said. “...Florida has the largest budget surplus in the history of the state by far. I can pick up the cost share, I just want the power back on so we’ll pay for it. That’s fine.”
Melissa Seixas, president of Duke Energy in Florida, said her company has restored power to over a million customers since the storm left and 4,000 more customers without service “will all have power by midnight tonight.”
She said that after Monday there will remain about 200 customers whose property damage from wind or flooding is too substantial to restore power to them at this time.
“As of last night, we had restored and energized every single transmission point of delivery in the state of Florida, including to Hardee County,’‘ Seixas said.
DeSantis listed the scope of the state’s emergency response to the massive hurricane — from 375 Starlink satellite devices provided by Elon Musk to provide internet access to the impacted areas, to the construction of two slow-speed temporary bridges to restore access to residents of Pine and Sanibel islands.
The governor said the state will also be supplying 100 generators to Cape Coral to help get its sewage system back up, in addition to working with engineers to get the water system repaired.
The governor kept his comments upbeat, refraining from any mention of the mounting death toll, now around 100 people.
When a reporter asked again whether state and local officials should have done more to underscore the life-threatening storm surge that led to the drowning deaths, the governor was combative in his defense.
“I followed not just the NHC [National Hurricane Center] track, the Euro model, the icon model, the GFS — most of you probably don’t even know what those are,’‘ he said. He snapped at reporters for questioning the evacuation warning, as some survivors have done.
“It’s a little rich coming from an industry that on Monday all day they were all in Tampa Bay saying it was going to be the worst-case scenario for Florida straight into Tampa Bay,’‘ DeSantis said, his voice rising. “That’s what they were saying. Now, they’re turning around and wondering why people 150 or 120 miles [south] didn’t do something they were not telling people to do.”
He then said there is room to “look to see what you can do better,” but he said he would prefer “to focus on getting people where they need to be with power, with food with all these different things, and let’s spend a little more time doing that.”