Hurricane Michael is set to disrupt elections in Florida, a state where environmental crises have dominated on the campaign trail.
The state’s panhandle is bracing itself as the storm prepares to lash Northwest Florida, throwing a wrench not only into midterm elections but also possibly exacerbating an ongoing algae crisis and marking a harrowing new trend as hurricanes arrive later in the year.
Expected to arrive at Florida’s shores on Wednesday, Michael was growing in strength as of Tuesday afternoon. Currently a Category 2 hurricane, it could make landfall as a Category 3. The Florida panhandle is home to the state’s capital, Tallahassee, which could be right in the line of fire if the storm’s current direction continues.
Gov. Rick Scott (R) has declared a state of emergency in 35 Florida counties, calling the storm “life-threatening and extremely dangerous.” Officials warned the storm could be unlike any seen in decades. Michael will be the first hurricane to hit the area since Hurricane Hermine in 2016.
And while Atlantic hurricane season doesn’t end until November, Michael is also coming much later in the year than usual, worrying advocates and experts.
The hurricane’s most immediate impact will be on the midterm elections. Florida’s voter registration deadline is Tuesday, but the storm has put that cut-off in question. Marc Elias, an attorney working on voting rights in the state, wrote Tuesday on Twitter that Florida’s Democratic Party has filed an emergency injunction in an effort to extend the deadline to October 16.
BREAKING: On behalf of @FlaDems, we have filed for an Emergency Injunction to require Florida to extend the voter registration deadline until October 16 due to the hurricane.
— Marc E. Elias (@marceelias) October 9, 2018
A number of candidates suspended campaigning in the midst of the storm, including Scott, who is running to unseat incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D). Both officials have briefly halted campaigning, as has Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, the current mayor of Tallahassee. Gillum has advised city residents dependent on energy to seek out places to shelter during the storm.
Scott has asked President Donald Trump for federal assistance on behalf of Florida. The president himself said Monday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would be monitoring the situation and is prepared to act.
But in another set of comments, Trump took aim at Tallahassee, bemoaning the city’s “tremendous corruption, tremendous crime” and targeting Gillum, who is running against Ron DeSantis, a Republican backed by Trump.
Gillum quickly fired back on Twitter, drawing attention to Tallahassee’s vulnerability in the face of a hurricane.
“Hey @realDonaldTrump — don’t come to my state and talk trash about my city while we are preparing for a Category 3 hurricane. We need a partner right now, not a partisan,” Gillum wrote.
Environmental issues have played a leading role in Florida’s current election cycle, something Hurricane Michael is likely to exacerbate.
One major point of contention has been an ongoing algae crisis in the state, furthered by warming waters and nutrients from agricultural runoff. In particular, “red tide” — the blooms that have plagued Florida’s coastline — have proven especially controversial, playing heavily into Scott’s fight with Nelson.
Michael could help dissipate the blooms — or it could make them much worse. Experts have said the storm might move red tide further north in Florida, potentially helping other parts of the state at the expense of the panhandle.
Historically, hurricanes have often dispersed nutrients from the land into the ocean, exacerbating algae. In 2004, Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne hit Florida in succession and may have contributed to one of the worst red tide outbreaks in the state’s history. Scientists have speculated that last year’s Hurricane Irma may also have been a factor in this year’s red tide crisis.
While experts are still working to understand the influence of climate change on fueling Hurricane Michael specifically, in general scientists have linked global warming to an uptick in massive storms like the hurricanes that have hit the U.S. South and East Coast in recent years.
Warming waters allow hurricanes to supercharge and stall over land, maximizing their deadly impact. Green groups are also eyeing the storm’s unusually late appearance in October as a disconcerting omen.
“To me the biggest question, the biggest thing that this storm points out, is that as climate change warms water and the hot water lingers on into the fall, hurricane season starts to expand,” Sierra Club Florida Chapter Director Frank Jackalone told ThinkProgress. “We’re getting hurricanes in October and that’s pretty extraordinary.”
Jackalone said the organization was especially concerned about the projected storm surge associated with Michael, as well as possible beach erosion and other environmental impacts. Any long-term damage associated with the storm may also impact the midterm elections — Scott in particular has come under fire for climate skepticism and for his close ties with fossil fuel interests.
But if the storm shifts to the left, toxic sites could also be a problem. Northwest Florida is home to a number of Superfund sites, or areas plagued by deadly toxins so severe that they have been prioritized for cleanup by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Florida itself has more than 50 Superfund sites ranked at the highest priority level, with at least five Superfund sites in the western panhandle alone. Those sites are located in a district represented by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who has previously called for abolishing the EPA.
That area is mostly concentrated away from where Michael is projected to do the most damage, but Jackalone indicated those sites will still be monitored as the storm approaches.
“If they even get Category 1-strength winds, it could hit the Superfund sites. It’s something we’re going to look at,” he said.
Damage from the storm could also be felt far outside of Florida. After making landfall, the hurricane is currently projected to veer to the northeast, sending it towards the Carolinas. That area is still recovering from Hurricane Florence, which drenched the region in rains last month and largely devastated North Carolina.