Sun Sentinel | Gov. Rick Scott still needs to answer for his Hurricane Irma response

Gov. Rick Scott’s net worth is almost $250 million. Yet as he campaigns for the U.S. Senate against Sen. Bill Nelson, Scott describes himself in everyman terms. “I’ll return your phone calls,” he told supporters at a rally last month.

If that pledge sounds familiar, it should. We heard it from Scott before Hurricane Irma. The governor gave out his cell phone number and promised a quick response.

Yet no help came when the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills called. Irma had knocked out the nursing home’s power. Without air conditioning, temperatures were rising. Twelve patients died. The governor’s staff blames the nursing home.

Favorable first impressions last fall of his response before and after Irma helped Scott as he prepared to challenge Nelson. We noted at the time that the governor “quickly visited hardest-hit areas to focus relief efforts and share information.” At times, we said, Scott “presented not only as a leader, but a likable leader.”

Since then, however, it has become clear that the governor didn’t perform very well. Though he still deserves points for raising awareness, Scott didn’t do nearly as well as Lawton Chiles after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 or Jeb Bush during the bad 2004 and 2005 storm seasons.

One of Scott’s biggest flaws was trying to control the flow of information. Scott insisted on delivering the twice-daily briefings. Similarly, he would like to control the narrative about his performance. But the record is undercutting that attempt.

Let’s start with calls to that cell phone. Scott’s office deleted them. A spokeswoman claimed that the action was legal because the calls involved “transitory” information and thus did not need to be retained. “Each voicemail,” she said, “was collected by the governor’s staff and given to the proper agency for handling. Every call was returned.”

Because of the deletion, however, there’s no way for the public to verify those claims, especially with regard to the nursing home. “Just because they could delete (the voicemails) doesn’t mean they should delete them,” said First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen. “These were important; people died.”

Then there is Scott’s action on contracts for debris removal in Monroe County, where Irma made landfall. WFOR-Channel 4 reported that the governor ignored existing contracts and gave the work to a pair of other vendors. One original contract paid $32 per mile of work clearing debris. The Scott administration contract paid $913 per mile. The original contract paid $75 for removal of each appliance. Scott’s contract paid $969.

Not surprisingly, these contracts have annoyed members of Congress. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reimburses states, counties and cities for hurricane-related expenses. The more expensive the contract, the higher the reimbursement and the higher the cost to taxpayers.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., sought answers on the contracts from the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA’s parent agency. Ten members of the Florida congressional delegation – all Democrats – signed a letter asking the inspector general to examine “these unusual and highly questionable contracting decisions” in its review of Irma recovery efforts.

Scott still has offered no credible explanation for overriding local officials and approving the much more expensive contracts. When Channel 4’s Jim DeFede broke the story, Scott’s office said, “It is inaccurate to compare pre-disaster contracts with emergency debris removal contracts. It is comparing apples to oranges and must be reflected in your story.” But as DeFede pointed out, the governor’s office had warned local governments against “being price-gouged by debris removal contractors.” Scott then enabled price-gouging to occur.

In response to their letter, a Scott campaign spokeswoman said House Democrats “care more about private vendors who lost their opportunity to profit off a disaster than they do about the families who were able to quickly return home thanks to the work of Gov. Scott.” In fact, the companies Scott chose were the profiteers.

Then last fall, the Department of Children and Families botched the distribution of Irma food benefits because the response overwhelmed Scott’s people.

Finally, Scott chose as the state’s emergency management director a former campaign aide who has just two years of relevant experience.

When The Tampa Bay Times tried to interview Wes Maul, he would not speak on the record. A department spokesman said Maul “did not have the bandwidth to prepare for and get into a formal interview, because he’s completely engaged in preparing Floridians for the storm season.”

After Nelson’s recent ad criticized Scott over Irma, the governor’s campaign responded with the usual talking point about Scott “leading the state through the largest storm in recent history.”

In retrospect, however, Scott wasn’t much of a leader.


Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Andy Reid and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.