Florida Struggles in the Wake of Deadly Hurricane as DeSantis Wages Culture Wars

As President Biden meets Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as well as survivors of Hurricane Ian (the deadliest storm to hit Florida in decades), we get an update on relief efforts underway from Florida state Representative Michele Rayner and the housing crisis caused by the storm. Republicans like Governor DeSantis are “more concerned about sticking it to Joe Biden than actually making sure that they can take care of their people,” says Rayner. She also discusses Florida’s treatment of asylum seekers, and the antipathy to them.LGBT “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden is visiting survivors of Hurricane Ian in Florida today, surveying damage from the Category 4 storm that devastated part of Florida’s Gulf Coast. The hurricane’s death toll has topped 109, with 105 of those deaths in Florida, making it the state’s deadliest hurricane in decades. Search and rescue crews are warning they’re likely to uncover more bodies in the coming days. At least 55 of the deaths were in Florida’s Lee County. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis dismissed questions during a news conference Monday about why officials there didn’t mandate evacuations until the day before the storm hit.

GOV. RON DESANTIS: Go ahead, ma’am. Go ahead, ma’am. OK, OK, OK. Stop. Stop. Stop. OK? It’s been — this has been dealt with. Lee County has given an explanation of what they did. They went through that. … Well, of course you’re going to review everything we do in these storms. I mean, that’s the way it works.

AMY GOODMAN: Today DeSantis meets President Biden as many residents face a long recover in the midst of a housing crisis which could leave many people without housing, especially those with low or fixed incomes.

We travel to St. Petersburg, Florida to speak to Michele Rayner, Democratic state representative. She’s been on the ground helping with relief efforts in the hardest-hit neighborhoods in Fort Myers, which is in Lee County, including Harlem Heights and Dunbar.

Welcoming to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Representative Michele Rayner. Talk about the whole story. The attack on the officials for failing to call for evacuation earlier, and the whole issue as to who gets the most hurt. Who is it hardest — who is it hardest to evacuate? For example, the poor, people who don’t have access to vehicles, etc. Then, what happens next? Who is most affected? Please give us a map of the area.

REP. MICHELE RAYNER: Well, Amy and Juan, it’s so good to be with you. This is, in a very low key way, a true dream come true. This is what I love. Democracy Now! Your work and what you do.

But to the question at hand, so I have been Black in America, Black in Florida for 41 years — a young 41, but for 41 years. So, I have family in Fort Myers’ Dunbar area and Harlem Heights. So, one, when we’re thinking about evacuating, there is a privilege in being able to evacuate. Not everyone has the means or ability to evacuate. And so, that’s number one, so we’re putting that there. We are also gauging and analyzing the response of Lee County. We knew there was a hurricane coming but initially, they thought it would hit my home, my District. But it turned out to be a hurricane. So, once again, telling folks to evacuate, especially in Harlem Heights and in Dunbar, there is a privilege that’s there.

The second concern is who is getting what kind of relief, now that we are in the post-hurricane recovery phase. And I think that, you know, as I’ve been making calls about this, there has to be an intentional focus on our working families, on our farmworkers. There’s a large population of farmworkers down in Southwest Florida. Also, parts of these communities, you know, quarter of Dunbar lives under the federal poverty line, and so — but we knew that there was going to be a disparity or an inequitable response because of what’s been going on pre-Hurricane Ian.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Representative, could your talk about the housing crisis in Florida before the hurricane? In terms of affordable housing, reports have indicated that rents are rising in many areas of Florida. How do you see the numbers of people that are now homeless, how the state is going to be able to marshal — and the federal government — resources to be able to assist those who have no homes?

REP. MICHELE RAYNER: I mean, Juan, you know, quite frankly, Floridians can’t afford Florida. As you said, we are in a housing crisis. There are ways to fix this housing crisis, but a Republican-led leadership in the Governor’s Mansion and in the Legislature have chosen not to. We attempted to address a property-insurance crisis that we already have. It was not solved. It was actually — you know, helped and aided the insurance companies.

So, when you’re thinking about folks who are working families and folks who are trying to make sure they can rebuild their lives, number one, is their housing going to be the same or better as what they lost? Number two is their ability to afford the housing. Number three, are the insurance companies — are they actually going to be ethical in their dealings with the people on the ground?

So, we already see that we have a crisis in our housing market, we have a crisis in our rental market, we have a crisis in our property insurance market, and this storm has now exacerbated the crisis that we’re at. And we’re at catastrophic levels. My hope is that this will change. FEMA will be able to immediately start working with the most vulnerable communities and put an intentional emphasis on helping them recover.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I was curious about your governor’s stance on climate change. If I’m not mistaken, back during — in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, he opposed federal aid to New Jersey and New York by the federal government after that catastrophe. Now he’s being forced to basically ask Washington for assistance, isn’t he?

REP. MICHELE RAYNER: Yeah. You know, the governor and other members his party speak from both sides of their mouths. We saw members from the Republican delegation of Florida vote against their constituents and their own interests this week over aid to Florida. So, you know, they’re more concerned about sticking it to Joe Biden than actually making sure that they can take care of their people. DeSantis is in this position right now. You know, he’s trying to figure out a way to keep sticking it to Joe Biden by simultaneously having his hand out. And both can’t be true; you can’t do both of them. And once again, this is why I’ve been saying, you know, we are public servants. We are public servants when we are elected. However, there are some people who are more concerned with being visible than they are about being a servant.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, still on Governor DeSantis but another issue, and that’s the issue of migrants. We all know about what he did, spending government money to fly Venezuelan asylum seekers from Texas to Florida, up to Martha’s Vineyard. Now there are number of immigrants in — migrants, asylum seekers in New York who have been shown flyers that there’s paid work in Florida. They are headed back down.y’re headed back down. The New York Post This is what she reported. What do you think, Representative Michele Rayner. They’re being told they’ll get money if they go to Florida.

REP. MICHELE RAYNER: I don’t know what to say, Amy. One, it’s heartbreaking that, basically, our governor kidnapped them — I mean, like, let’s just level set and call this thing what it is — and under false pretenses. You know, I’m a criminal defense attorney. He would face criminal prosecution for what he did if he used any other standard. So that’s number one.

Number two, you know, while I understand that folks need to work — they are trying to make sure they can stay here in the United States because the conditions from where they are from are so dangerous. I don’t — I guess we’re here now. I don’t know if Florida is the best place for them, because we have a governor that has proven to be dangerous to people who do not look like him, to people who do not love like him, to people who are not of the same party and to people who don’t have the same wealth income that he has. And so, you know, while I, as anyone, would welcome folks and say, “Please come. Please work. Please help us and also be able to have money to send back to your families,” Florida is — tends to be a little bit dangerous for folks who don’t align with Ron DeSantis.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you quickly, Representative Michele Rayner. You’re the first Black openly LGBTQ Florida Legislature. Next — October 11th, next week, is National Coming Out Day. You’re planning to lead a town hall meeting in the aftermath of the passage H.B. 1557, “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Can you talk about the impact it’s had? Are people still pursuing their activism in the midst this storm?

REP. MICHELE RAYNER: Amy, you know it has had a significant impact. It has had a significant effect on teachers. Teachers have left the teaching profession. There have been teachers who are anxious about what they can tell parents. One school district right above my county, they had teachers take off the “safe space” stickers. You have parents who are concerned about their children’s safety. Students report an increase in bullying as a result of being members of the Student Council. LGBTQ community.

And people are most certainly continuing their advocacy around this work, because here’s what we know to be true. If this Legislature stays the same makeup, if Ron DeSantis wins a second term in the Governor’s Mansion, that these type of bills aren’t going to just stop at “Don’t Say Gay.” We’re going to see bills that we have seen in Texas, you know, criminalizing parents for trying to allow their children to have gender-affirming care, and pushing the limit of what can be done. So, we know that right now with “Don’t Say Gay,” we have to continue sounding the alarm, knowing that this is a slippery slope as to what can happen, not only toward LGBTQ Youth, but also Black and brown people, working people, and working families.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you, Representative Michele Rayner, for being here, Democratic Florida state representative. Representative Rayner was there in Fort Myers helping with relief efforts following Hurricane Ian. A shoutout to the community radio station WMNFWe turned to her when the storm was raging, serving the community of Tampa-St. Petersburg.