Now that President Bush has won Florida in his 2004 re-election bid, he may want to draft a letter of appreciation to Michael Brown, chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Seldom has any federal agency had the opportunity to so directly and uniquely alter the course of a presidential election, and seldom has any agency delivered for a president as FEMA did in Florida this fall.
It is almost impossible to overstate the political importance of Florida, the fourth biggest election prize, with 27 electoral votes. In 2000, when Bush and Democratic nominee Al Gore battled to a 49 percent draw in the state, the official recount that gave Bush a 537-vote win also gave him the presidency. In 2004, both presidential campaigns targeted Florida with an intensity that assumed the state would be just as competitive as four years before.
Neither party, however, could have foreseen the role that Mother Nature would play. Beginning in August, Florida was flattened by four successive hurricanes that ripped up broad swaths of the state. Between hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, the storm damage was estimated to run as high as $26 billion.
In 1992, the last time a major hurricane pummeled Florida in the homestretch of a presidential election, FEMA was caught with its pants down. Its response to Hurricane Andrew was disorganized and chaotic, leaving thousands without shelter and water. Cleanup and resupply efforts were snarled in red tape. After watching the messy relief efforts unfold, lawmakers questioned whether FEMA was a Cold War relic that ought to be abolished.
For then-President George H.W. Bush, the scene proved to be a public relations nightmare. He managed to regain his footing and win Florida three months later, but his winning margin was dramatically reduced from 1988.
In 2004, George W. Bush and FEMA left little room for error. Not long after Hurricane Charley first made landfall on Aug. 13, Bush declared the state a federal disaster area to release federal relief funds. Less than two days after Charley ripped through southwestern Florida, he was on the ground touring hard-hit neighborhoods.
Bush later made a handful of other Florida visits to review storm-related damage, but the story on the ground was not Bush's hand-holding. Rather, it was FEMA's performance.
Charley hit on a Friday. With emergency supply trucks pre-positioned at depots for rapid, post-storm deployment, the agency was able to deliver seven truckloads of ice, water, cots, blankets, baby food and building supplies by Sunday. On Monday, hundreds of federal housing inspectors were on the ground, and FEMA already had opened its first one-stop disaster relief center.
By the end of September, three hurricanes later, the agency had processed 646,984 registrations for assistance with the help of phone lines operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Fifty-five shelters, 31 disaster recovery centers and six medical teams were in operation across the state. Federal and state assistance to households reached more than $361 million, nearly 300,000 housing inspections were completed, and roughly 150,000 waterproof tarps were provided for homeowners, according to FEMA figures.
It's impossible to know just how much of an effect FEMA had on the Florida vote. Many of the citizens the agency served there presumably had more important things to worry about. It's also hard to imagine that, even with its shock-and-awe hurricane response, a bureaucracy like FEMA pleased all its customers. Even so, in a closely contested state where hundreds of thousands of voters suffered storm-related losses, it's equally hard to imagine that they didn't notice the agency's outreach.