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Bush's newest mantle: hurricane governor

STEVE BOUSQUET
Published September 15, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - Jeb Bush is governor of a state in perpetual emergency.

For more than a month, he has guided Florida through hurricane preparations and recoveries. He brought aid to victims of Charley as he readied the state for Frances. Now he leads the recovery from Charley and Frances as he prepares a storm-weary state for Ivan.

Bush, formerly the tax-cut governor and the education governor, has become the hurricane governor.

The champion of smaller government and private enterprise now leads the most elaborate multifront public relief program in state history. The Republican who once envisioned empty state buildings as "silent monuments" to a bygone era of big government presides over a massive mobilization of people and machinery.

Bush compares the state response to the federal government's use of military force.

"A lot of people will debate the role of government and the scope of government," he said recently. "But no matter how conservative or liberal you are, I don't think anyone has suggested this is not the proper role of government."

Instead of focusing on education and health care policy, Bush is consumed with getting gasoline, ice and electricity to hard-hit counties. He hasn't worn a tie in weeks, closely watches the Weather Channel and has abandoned his Capitol office.

Instead, Bush camps out at the state emergency operations center, a bunker-like complex on the edge of town ringed by satellite dishes, construction cones and grim-faced men dressed in battle fatigues.

He is a constant presence on television from the operations center and on frequent trips to ruined neighborhoods.

"I think he's done a pretty damn good job," said Jim Krog, who was chief of staff for Bush's predecessor, the late Lawton Chiles. "Think about it. Coordinating the local, state and federal governments on a good day is hard. He's been under the gun for, what, four weeks?"

Five.

The state environmental secretary, Colleen Castille, said Bush now starts the day asking about the number of Floridians still without power. She described Bush as "not happy" when a Gulf Power executive said it could take weeks to restore power after Ivan hits the Panhandle.

"The governor walks around to the emergency support function offices and says, "Keep up the good work' or "Push the utilities more,' " Castille said.

When he asks the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the National Guard for help, Bush doesn't need to say he's the brother of the president of the United States. And in discussing the dangers of a Category 5 storm, he speaks from experience.

Bush, who warns coastal residents not to be a "macho man" and ride out the storm, did just that in 1992 during Hurricane Andrew. He endured the "scary" fury of that hurricane in Miami and remembers the exhilaration when the lights returned.

"I had my dog, my mother-in-law, my children, my wife, one of my best friends, his family and his dog," Bush recalled. "We all hovered in this hall. It felt like the house was going to explode. It was scary, and there's no reason to want to try to live through a storm of that magnitude."

As the relief effort expands, the figures are staggering and still growing. Government and charities have provided 6.4-million meals and 19-million pounds of ice.

In Port Charlotte, a long, slow recovery continues amid huge piles of rubble from decimated mobile home parks. Bush is far from the minds of some storm victims, but he is a reassuring presence for those who have power and see him on television.

"I think he's doing great," said Clifford Brown, 55, a nursing home maintenance worker. "He's putting his best foot forward. He's here for the people."

There were complaints about FEMA after Charley hammered the southwest coast. On the east coast, tempers flared in Palm Beach County over the slow pace of restoring power.

The governor famous for his own impatience pleads with constituents to be patient, think first about each other and, oh yes, resist that urge to top off the gas tank.

Some of Bush's friends say the governor's skills are well-suited to the task.

"He's got a very short attention span, he's very detail-oriented and he's forward thinking," observed Steve Uhlfelder, a lawyer and lobbyist who Bush placed in charge of a hurricane recovery fundraising effort.

"He'll be remembered for how he mobilized government, how he used government in a positive way," Uhlfelder said. "Here's a conservative Republican, mobilizing the forces of government for good."

Bush has walked through storm-battered Punta Gorda and Wauchula as other state politicians jockeyed to share the post-Charley media spotlight.

He went to Fort Pierce with President Bush and handed out bags of ice.

He knocked down a rumor about gas rationing, calling it an "urban legend" that started in Tampa. He asked Floridians to pray for each other.

In what now seems like ancient history, Bush stayed behind to soothe Floridians last month while his fellow Republicans traveled to New York for the GOP's national convention. Between Charley and Frances, his beleaguered child welfare secretary resigned and hardly anyone noticed.

Bush said the unprecedented demands on the state have proven the wisdom of his fiscal policies, which include larger cash reserves and clearer spending priorities.

But enormous challenges are ahead: Convincing tourists to return. Helping agriculture recover. Providing a source of money to rebuild roads and schools. Making sure homeowners insurance is still available.

Government observers and longtime Bush watchers say the governor's skills as a salesman and his interest in policy make him well suited to tackle those challenges.

Some believe the Bush legacy has evolved since he declared a state of emergency on Friday, Aug. 13. They say a one-two-three punch of hurricanes, and the epic demands placed on the state, could eclipse the rest of Bush's record when the history of his tenure as governor is written.

"People can disagree with him on policy initiatives," said Ron Sachs, a Tallahassee media strategist who worked for Chiles. "But no one could argue that he has not been a superb leader. He's demonstrated great leadership and humanity at a time when Florida needs it most."

Times staff writers Dan Dewitt, Christopher Goffard and Joni James contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

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