President Donald Trump is set to hold a campaign rally in a hurricane-ravaged region of Florida on Wednesday, arriving in the state as officials are lobbying for more disaster relief aid and ramping up climate change efforts.
Disaster aid for several parts of the United States has been stalled while members of Congress clash over additional funds for Puerto Rico and the White House reportedly continues to push for funds for Trump’s border wall. The stalemate is a major source of frustration in the Florida Panhandle, where residents are still struggling to recover from last year’s Hurricane Michael, and in the rest of the state, as Republican lawmakers begin to shift their stances on climate change.
Those rifts could spell trouble for the president in 2020, with Florida considered a critical battleground state for both parties.
In advance of Trump’s visit, Florida Republicans implored the president to announce more disaster aid after months of impasse. Parts of the Panhandle are still reeling from Hurricane Michael, which caused billions of dollars in damages. The storm obliterated the town of Mexico Beach and left Panama City and surrounding areas facing an overwhelming rebuilding effort. Aid workers told ThinkProgress on Wednesday that the region remains devastated and likely several years out from recovery.
“Recovery has been difficult,” said Mark Smith, advisory services manager for the relief organization SBP USA. Smith said that much of the impacted area in Florida is still potentially years out from returning to its pre-storm condition.
Officials have repeatedly lobbied for more aid, namely in the form of a $17.2 billion bill that would help not only Florida, but wildfire-stricken California and areas in the Midwest impacted by severe flooding. Democrats, however, want more funding for Puerto Rico despite the objections of Trump, who has argued that the island “has been given” $91 billion already (Puerto Rico has received $40.8 billion, much of which has not been spent, and island communities say they are still far from recovery).
Some Republicans, especially those from the impacted South and Midwest, have indicated a willingness to pass the aid bill, but Trump is reportedly eyeing a renewed push for U.S.-Mexico border wall funding as part of any final deal. Such efforts would likely impede the bill’s passage even further, delaying aid to impacted areas.
Trump’s Wednesday rally will be held in Panama City Beach, worrying Republicans concerned about the optics of visiting the area without pledging disaster aid. Don Gaetz, chairman of the Triumph Gulf Coast Consortium and the father of Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), said Tuesday that Trump “owes everyone an explanation” over the stalled funds.
“The people in the Panhandle want to know why the funding is being held up and what he’s going to do about it,” Gaetz said.
But Gaetz’s son told reporters Monday night that meetings with the president had yielded no promises of aid. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) expressed hopes that Trump would make an announcement regardless, as did other state officials, albeit with no guarantees.
Even if an announcement comes, some indicated frustration with the timing.
“As much as Bay County votes Republican, we don’t need a political rally right now,” said Bay County Commissioner Philip Griffitts (R), whose county includes Panama City.
Disaster relief isn’t the only issue looming over the president’s visit. When Trump last visited Florida, he toured Lake Okeechobee, the state’s largest freshwater lake, where climate change is taking a toll — the water body is threatened by sea-level rise and algae blooms exacerbated by warming weather. But the president, who has repeatedly rejected climate science, declined to mention global warming during the visit. Climate action efforts have also consistently come under fire across federal agencies during the Trump administration.
While it is difficult to link any individual event to climate change, scientists have attributed the uptick in more severe and more frequent hurricanes to warming temperatures. But Trump administration officials, including former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt, have criticized scientists for elevating that connection.
In vulnerable Florida, climate change is a growing source of concern for residents and officials alike. In November, the state voted to constitutionally ban offshore drilling, and residents have sounded the alarm over heat waves and other worsening climate impacts along with hurricanes. Sea-level rise is also a major source of concern, with coastal cities like Miami facing encroaching water.
Those worries have resonated across party lines. Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R), whose district included Miami, made a point of emphasizing climate issues before he lost his seat last election cycle. Rep. Francis Rooney (R), who represents Florida’s coastal 19th district, has similarly touted his belief in climate change. And even more conservative Florida Republicans aren’t avoiding climate change as much as they used to, including DeSantis. Since taking office in January, the governor has worked to market himself as more environmentally conscious than his predecessor, now-Sen. Rick Scott (R). His efforts have included rolling out major water policies addressing issues like the algae crisis that has plagued the state for a year.
Moreover, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is currently hiring for a “chief resilience officer”; the individual in the position will tackle the “environmental, physical and economic impacts of climate change, especially sea level rise” in Florida, according to a LinkedIn posting. Florida environmental advocates say hiring for such a position is a major step in addressing the state’s climate vulnerabilities. But they also say DeSantis has yet to take an active role in addressing greenhouse gas emissions, a critical component of any real climate plan.
Polling indicates climate change will be a leading issue in 2020; it also shows that Trump may be in trouble in a state that helped him secure the presidency in 2016. According to one poll released this week, 52% of Florida voters viewed the president unfavorably. That same poll found that a plurality of those surveyed consider “global climate change” and “environmental concerns” to be the most important problem or issue facing Florida.