tampabay.com

A hands-on Crist dives into crisis

By BRADY DENNIS, CATHERINE SHOICHET and JONI JAMES
Published February 3, 2007


LAKE MACK - Gov. Charlie Crist had just landed unannounced in this eastern Lake County community Friday when an aide handed him a mobile phone: President Bush was calling.

Surrounded by reporters, Florida's new governor talked to the brother of the man he had just replaced.

Within moments, he had extracted a promise that federal aid would arrive soon.

"Thanks, buddy," Crist said as he ended the call.

Thirty-one days after the new governor took office, deadly tornadoes across Central Florida provided the first glimpse of Crist as Florida's chief crisis manager.

He succeeds a master of the craft. Gov. Jeb Bush's leadership after eight hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 earned him bipartisan accolades, even as his own brother bungled the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

It was quickly clear, less than 12 hours after the Groundhog Day tornadoes began, that Crist would have a more casual style. He was quick to the scene, making several unannounced visits across Lake and Volusia counties. When a mother of five in Lady Lake complained of having no food, he got some for her.

On some routine administration matters, it was too soon to tell if Crist's team was succeeding. Statewide status reports of how resources were being deployed were not available Friday.

Crist arrived at Lake Mack, a tiny community between Paisley and DeLand, by chance.

Moved by what he saw from his helicopter, he ordered the entire entourage to land. It left his security detail scrambling to round up officers to protect the governor.

Crist eventually inched away to talk to some of those who had felt the brunt of the storms.

"God bless you," Crist said to a woman. "What's your name?"

"Mary."

"I'm Charlie."

He rubbed her shoulder and moved on.

"I gotta say, it's inspiring," said Maj. Gen. Doug Burnett, who led Florida's National Guard for five years and was traveling with Crist. "It shows his leadership style. He saw people in devastation and said, 'Can you put it down there?' I think his heart and soul is right here with the people."

A wakeup call

The governor's long day began before daybreak with a 5 a.m. e-mail alert from the state emergency operations center.

At the Governor's Mansion, Crist got his first formal briefing by phone from chief of staff George LeMieux about 7:30 a.m. They canceled two news conferences on Crist's 2007 budget.

Then, Crist took a call from Craig Fugate, the state's emergency management director. The news was grim: fatalities, massive property damage.

Crist dressed in jeans, loafers and a navy State Emergency Response Team polo shirt. By 8:30 a.m. he was at the emergency operations center in south Tallahassee, signing an executive order declaring a state of emergency, talking to FEMA and Homeland Security, and being briefed by Fugate's team.

Two hours later he made his first public statements.

"This is one of the most important things we do in government, is to protect and serve our citizens, and that's exactly what's happening here," Crist said.

But unlike Bush, Crist deferred to Fugate to answer most questionss. Within an hour, the governor's entourage was on a plane, headed for Brooksville to rendezvous with military helicopters.

The worst he's seen

By 5 p.m., Crist had hopscotched to Volusia County and back to Lake County, his helicopter landing outside the demolished Lady Lake Church of God.

He met with Pastor Larry Lynn and gave a live interview to CBS Evening News' Katie Couric.

"This is incredible devastation," said Crist, who toured damage from the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes as attorney general. "I've seen the worst devastation I've ever seen in my whole life today."

As Crist walked toward an SUV waiting to take him deeper into the devastated area, a woman stepped in front of him. "Are you going to talk with the people who live on this street?" she asked.

The woman complained that she and her five children had been trapped at home without electricity, stopped from leaving her street by traffic and utility crews. She told Crist she was hungry. Another neighbor said they were unable to get food and baby formula.

"I'll go get it for you. ... I'm going to get in this car right now and I'll get it for you," he said.

Ten minutes later, he returned carrying grocery bags full of water, milk and potato chips.