FORT MYERS, Florida -- President Joe Biden surveyed the devastation of hurricane-ravaged Florida on Wednesday, promising to marshal the power of the federal government to help rebuild as he comforted local residents alongside Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 foe.
Biden praised DeSantis' handling of the storm recovery as both men -- who have battled over pandemic protocols and migration as the governor mulls a presidential bid -- put aside politics for a few days. The state is struggling to recover from the wreckage of Hurricane Ian, which tore through southwestern Florida last week and left dozens dead.
"Today we have one job and only one job, and that's to make sure the people in Florida get everything they need to fully, thoroughly recover," Biden said in a community that bore the brunt of Ian's assault. He warned that the rebuilding effort will take months or years.
"It's going to take a hell of a long time, hopefully without any snags in the way," he said as DeSantis stood behind him, hands folded as he squinted into the glaring sunlight. "Later, after the television cameras have moved on, we're still going to be here with you."
The days after Ian's landfall in Florida have prompted a temporary detente between Biden and DeSantis, who had spoken on the phone at least three times to coordinate recovery efforts. They spent part of Wednesday meeting with area residents and, for Biden, absorbing the full scope of Ian's devastation.
After Biden and first lady Jill Biden arrived earlier at Fisherman's Wharf -- where homes and businesses lay in ruins amid debris and muck -- DeSantis offered his hand to the president for a shake. Next to them as they spoke was a boat that the storm had lifted into a cafe.
The solidarity, however fleeting, continued Wednesday afternoon when DeSantis formally welcomed Biden to his state and praised the collaboration with officials on the ground and the federal government in Washington.
"We are cutting through the red tape and that's from local government, state government, all the way up to the president. We appreciate the team effort," DeSantis said.
Biden said DeSantis had done a "good job" when asked by reporters to assess the governor's handling of the recovery efforts.
"We have very different political philosophies ... but we worked hand in glove," Biden said. "On things related to dealing with this crisis, we've been completely lockstep. There's been no difference."
The breadth of the devastation that Biden witnessed was immense. The presidential motorcade drove by wind-shorn trees, some uprooted, others with branches pulled backwards by the storm. Fields off the highway were still flooded, forming stagnant lagoons.
Signs for stores and restaurants were blown out; ruined mattresses were piled in neighborhood streets, a building was tipped to the side like a chess piece. An armada of workers and repair trucks struggled with recovery.
"Our governor is the greatest," said Jay Kimble, a maintenance worker on Fort Myers Beach who lost everything. "I know he's going to do everything he can to get us back on our feet. I'm not a Biden fan at all."
The five hard-hit counties along the southwest Florida coast -- Charlotte, Collier, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota -- are, on average, older and whiter and have a smaller proportion of Hispanic residents than the rest of the state. Those counties voted for former President Donald Trump by wide margins in 2020.
Lee County, where Ian made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, is the most populous in the region, with about 756,000 people, and has grown steadily as an affordable, low-tax retreat for Midwestern transplants and retirees in particular.
This week, residents said they were having trouble navigating the process of applying for federal disaster relief and had not seen much evidence of federal boots on the ground.
Some barrier-island residents who could not get any government officials to give them a ride to the islands to check on their homes said they had turned instead to the volunteer flotillas that have sprung up at piers.
John Lynch, 59, whose bright yellow house on Matlacha, a spit of land between the mainland and Pine Island, was now creaking ominously atop the shifting sands, said it seemed that most supplies were being delivered and distributed by churches and neighbors, rather than by the government.
"Day after day after day, nothing," Lynch said about government aid.
On Tuesday, Lynch ventured onto the mainland to stock up on food and candles, and to get dry shampoo and coffee creamer for a neighbor who would not leave her home.
Hurricane Ian has resulted in at least 98 people confirmed dead, including 89 in Florida, and many people still wait for power to be restored. Ian's 150 mph winds and punishing storm surge last week took out power for 2.6 million in Florida. Many people still are unable to get food and water, although DeSantis said power has been restored to more than 97% of the state.
With the midterm elections a little over a month away, the crisis was bringing together political rivals in common cause at least for a time.
Biden and DeSantis have had a multitude of differences in recent years over how to fight covid-19, immigration policy and more. In recent weeks, they tussled over the governor's decision to put migrants on planes or buses to Democratic strongholds, a practice that Biden has called "reckless."
Along with DeSantis, Sen. Rick Scott has also been one of Biden's most prominent Republican critics. He, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and other state and local officials joined the president and governor. Rubio, like DeSantis, is up for reelection in November.
Jeff Rioux, a general contractor in Fort Myers and a registered Republican, said as he mopped up floors and tore out soaked drywall from his flooded house that he welcomed Biden's visit.
"The world does need to see what happened here. It's going get some help down here," Rioux said of the national attention. "At some point you've got to put politics aside. People are hurting down here. It's not right or left, it's America at the end of the day."
Biden resorted to profanity at one point, but only in an apparently jocular comment picked up by a microphone and causing much comment on social media.
As Fort Myers Beach Mayor Ray Murphy thanked Biden for coming, the president said at one point in the brief conversation, "No one f**** with a Biden," and appeared to offer the mayor some advice.
"That's exactly right, that's exactly right," Murphy said, laughing. "All right, good to see you."
Before the storm hit, the president had intended to visit the Florida cities of Orlando and Fort Lauderdale to stress his efforts to strengthen Social Security and Medicaid. Biden has accused Scott of wanting to end both programs by proposing that federal laws should expire every five years, although the Florida senator has said he wants to preserve the programs.
The hurricane changed the purpose and tone of Biden's first trip to Florida this year, which was in an area devastated by winds and surging water. Boats, including huge yachts, were capsized and hurled inland.
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters on Air Force One that the cost of rebuilding will be significant: "It will certainly be in the billions and perhaps one of the more costly disasters that we've seen in many years."
The White House message of bipartisan unity in a time of crisis marked a difference from Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, who at times threatened to withhold aid from the states of Democrats who criticized him, including Govs. Gavin Newsom of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York.
After a disaster of this magnitude, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is in charge of coordinating the response among federal agencies and working in tandem with state and local governments. It has faced repeated criticism over the past few decades for slow emergency response, most notably after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"We understand the road to recovery can be as long as it is frustrating, but we are here to help, and we will continue to do everything in our power to help all Floridians recover from this disaster," Jeremy Edwards, a FEMA spokesperson, said in an email.
Criswell, the FEMA administrator, said Wednesday that nearly 4,000 federal officials were in Florida working on hurricane recovery. The agency approved $70 million this week for survivors of Ian, which analysts say has inflicted more than $40 billion in property damage claims alone. The agency also said it had set up food and water distribution sites, and was sending teams to shelters and people's homes in 11 counties to help them start applying for disaster relief.
But along destroyed barrier islands severed from the mainland because of damage to roads and bridges, residents voiced frustration about pressure from officials to clear out during the cleanup process and about not enough assistance arriving from FEMA.
"People don't really have a lot of places to go," said Jamie Surgent, 37, a business owner on hard-hit Pine Island, adding, "I just want the help."
Locals on Pine Island recalled seeing the United Cajun Navy, a nonprofit group whose members respond to disasters, ex-military members and their own neighbors steering boats through muddied waterways and checking on the people who had stayed. As they picked up basic supplies, a constant refrain was, "Where's FEMA?"
Even without electricity and water, they refused to leave -- and instead demanded that the government allow them to build a temporary bridge to restore access to the island, a wish that DeSantis said Wednesday had been fulfilled.
Information for this article was contributed by Josh Boak, Seung Min Kim, Bobby Caina Calvan, Curt Anderson, Zeke Miller and Brendan Farrington of The Associated Press and by Julie Bosman, Eliza Fawcett, Emily Cochrane and Jack Healy of The New York Times.