DeSantis asks Biden to issue ‘major disaster declaration’

Hurricane Ian

(NewsNation) — President Joe Biden’s administration is sending hundreds of Federal Emergency Management Agency employees to Florida to assure local leaders in Hurricane Ian’s path that Washington will meet their needs.

“When the storm passes, the federal government’s going to be there to help you recover,” Biden said. “We’ll be there to help you clean up and rebuild to help Florida get moving again, and we’ll be there at every step of the way. That’s my absolute commitment to the people of the state of Florida.”

The storm made landfall Wednesday afternoon.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis requested funds from the federal government Wednesday afternoon, asking Biden to issue major disaster declarations for all 67 counties in Florida.

A major disaster declaration would give Florida “funds for both emergency and permanent work and public infrastructure,” according to a press release from DeSantis’ office.

DeSantis also asked Biden to give FEMA the authority to provide “100% federal cost share for debris removal and emergency protective measures (FEMA Categories A and B) for the first 60 days from landfall,” according to the release. Category A funds cover the cost of debris removal. Category B funds provide protective measures taken both before and after a storm makes landfall.

Typically the federal government will wait to assess damages before issuing relief funds, but DeSantis asked the government to issue the relief funds as soon as possible, noting the size of the storm would indicate damages will be severe and widespread. DeSantis said in a press conference Hurricane Ian is already larger than Hurricane Charley, which battered Florida in 2004.

Florida Rep. Mike Waltz, R, said it is “hard to tell” if the people of Florida have been able to internalize how bad this storm is going to be for the state.

“A storm this strong, moving this slowly in such a populated part of the state is something we haven’t seen in many years,” Waltz said.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin declared a state of emergency Wednesday ahead of the storm’s arrival in his state.

On Tuesday, the president had calls with DeSantis, the governors of South Carolina and Georgia, as well as the mayors of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater to discuss the incoming storm.

“My team has been in constant contact with (DeSantis) from the very beginning,” Biden said. “My message has been absolutely clear — that we are on alert.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden will go to FEMA headquarters Thursday to get a briefing on the hurricane.

Federal officials warned those still in Florida to take the potentially life-threatening storm seriously.

“You should obey all warnings and directions from emergency officials,” Biden said. “Don’t take anything for granted. Use their judgment, not yours.”

FEMA Administrator Deanna Criswell, in remarks Wednesday, reiterated that the hurricane is dangerous and life-threatening.

“We will prepare for the historic and catastrophic impacts we are already beginning to see,” she said. Criswell added that she worries about people inland who think they are OK because they’re not on the coast.

“It’s not true,” she said. “The water gets pushed into these areas.”

FEMA’s response includes organizing almost four million liters of water and meals for anyone in need. In addition, FEMA Regional Administrator Gracia Szczech is “embedded” in Florida, the White House said.

To prepare, Biden administration officials are pre-staging 110,000 gallons of fuel and 18,000 pounds of propane for immediate deployment, as well as the personnel and equipment needed to support its distribution. The administration has moved in a “variety” of generators, the White House said. Already, there are 300 ambulances in the state, sent by the federal government.

Other aspects of the federal response include:

  • A search and rescue coordination group that includes FEMA Urban Search and Rescue personnel from multiple federal agencies
  • 300 pre-staged personnel from the Army Corps of Engineers
  • a 38-person disaster medical assistance team from the Department of Health and Human Services dispatched to Miami

Criswell said FEMA’s been asked for more high-water vehicles and other rescue capabilities, and the agency is continuing to move those in.

“We already have a lot of that equipment,” she said. “We are positioned really well.”

Hurricane Ian strengthened into a Category 4 storm as it raged toward Florida early Wednesday morning.

“It is now a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of up to 155 mph — that is knocking on the door of a Category 5 storm,” DeSantis said at a news conference Wednesday morning.

Hundreds of residents were being evacuated from several nursing homes in the Tampa area, where hospitals were also moving some patients. Airports in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Key West closed. Busch Gardens in Tampa closed ahead of the storm, while several Orlando-area theme parks, including Disney World and Sea World, planned to close Wednesday and Thursday.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp pre-emptively declared a state of emergency Tuesday, ordering 500 National Guard troops on standby to respond as needed. Along with the team sent to Florida, the federal government deployed two additional ones to Robin Air Force Base in Georgia. A 15-person incident management team, two 15-person health and medical task force teams and four pharmacists to Atlanta. In the next 24 hours, the White House said it anticipates sending more staff.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

This story is developing. Refresh for updates.

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