(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden warned about the possibility of “substantial loss of life” from Hurricane Ian and pledged the full force of the federal government to help Florida recover from the storm, poised to rank among the costliest natural disasters in US history.
“My message to the people of Florida and the country is at times like this, America comes together. We’re going to pull together as one team, as one America,” Biden said Thursday following a briefing at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s headquarters in Washington.
Biden said that officials had been “hearing early reports of what may be substantial loss of life” resulting from the storm, adding, “This could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history.”
He said he’d make a trip to the state “when the conditions allow it.”
The president stressed that he’d reached out to state and local officials -- including Republican Governor Ron DeSantis -- to make clear the federal government would do whatever it can to aid in the recovery.
Biden spoke Thursday morning for the latest time with DeSantis, and approved a federal disaster declaration for the state. Ian, which was downgraded Thursday from a hurricane to a tropical storm, left about 2.6 million homes without power while flooding coastal areas, destroying roads and threatening Florida’s citrus crop.
The president also reiterated a warning to oil and gas company executives: “Do not, do not, do not use this storm as an excuse to raise gasoline prices or gouge the American public,” he said.
Biden’s approval rating plummeted earlier this year over unusually high inflation, including gasoline prices that exceeded $5 a gallon, on average, in June. Prices fell by more than $1 a gallon to about $3.68 last week, on average, according to the automobile club AAA, but have begun to rise again.
“If the gas station companies try to use this storm to raise prices, I’m gonna ask officials to look into whether or not price gouging is going on,” Biden said. “America is watching, and the industry should do the right thing.”
The storm has thrust Biden to the center of a major federal disaster relief effort in coordination with DeSantis, a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate who has been deeply critical of the president.
The White House has said politics is not a factor when addressing natural disasters, and Biden also downplayed any past tension.
“This is not about anything having to do with our disagreements politically, this is about saving people’s lives, homes and businesses,” he told reporters at the FEMA event.
Still, should Biden visit the state, he will have an opportunity to showcase the federal response -- and his skills as consoler-in-chief -- on DeSantis’s home turf.
That’s a role Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, struggled with after natural disasters. Trump -- who is weighing another presidential run in 2024 -- was criticized for tossing paper towels into a crowd of Puerto Rican victims of Hurricane Maria. And the staff of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” published a children’s book, “Whose Boat Is This Boat?” mocking remarks Trump made in hurricane-stricken North Carolina.
Biden will dispatch FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell to the state Friday to check in on the recovery efforts.
Ian also poses political risks for Biden.
Nationwide, the storm could further exacerbate high inflation that has pinched American consumers and hurt Biden and Democrats’ prospects in November’s midterms. The storm was projected to ravage Florida’s orange crop, which could drive up prices for fruit and juice as well as push farmers into insolvency. Roughly 90% of the crop belt was in Ian’s path and Florida is the top orange-juice producing state in the US.
Ian made landfall Wednesday afternoon west of Fort Myers as a Category 4 Hurricane. The entire state braced for widespread flooding and blackouts and more than 2 million people were ordered or encouraged to evacuate. The storm is expected to cause more than $67 billion in damages and losses, while global shipping diverted vessels from the storm’s path.
The storm came shortly after Hurricane Fiona caused catastrophic flooding in the US commonwealth of Puerto Rico and knocked out power for the entire island. The outages have slowly been restored. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has faced pressure to make exceptions to American shipping requirements known as the Jones Act to speed deliveries of diesel needed to fuel power generators.
The Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday issued a waiver allowing the Marshall Islands-flagged GH Parks to deliver diesel barrels. Other foreign-flagged ships are expected to head to the island in the coming days.
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