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Florida’s Deadliest Hurricane in Years May Worsen Inequality, Homelessness Amid DeSantis’s Culture War

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As President Biden meets with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and survivors of Hurricane Ian, the deadliest storm to hit the state in decades, we get an update from Florida state Representative Michele Rayner on relief efforts underway and the housing crisis exacerbated 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 the treatment of asylum seekers in Florida and the anti-LGBT “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

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. The Lee County has explained 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: DeSantis meets with President Biden today as many residents face a long recovery amidst a housing crisis that could leave many unhoused, especially those on low or fixed incomes.

For more, we go to St. Petersburg, Florida, to speak with Democratic state Representative Michele Rayner. 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.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Representative Michele Rayner. If you can talk about this whole story, you know, the attack on the officials for not calling for evacuation earlier, but the whole issue of who gets hit hardest? Who is it hardest — who is it hardest to evacuate? For example, the poor, people who don’t have access to vehicles, etc. And then, what happens after the storm? Who is affected most? Give us a lay of the land.

REP. MICHELE RAYNER: Well, Amy and Juan, it’s so good to be with you. This is, low key, a dream come true. So, I love Democracy Now! and the work that 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 in the Dunbar area and in 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 the ability to be able to evacuate. And so, that’s number one, so we’re putting that there. Also, you know, as we are kind of gauging and looking at the response of Lee County, we knew that there was a hurricane coming, but initially they thought it was going to hit my home, my district, and it turned. So, once again, telling folks to evacuate, especially in Harlem Heights and in Dunbar, there is a privilege that’s there.

But secondly, after we are in this post-hurricane response, the concerning matter is: Who is getting what type of relief? 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: And, Representative, could you talk about the housing crunch that exists in Florida already, before the hurricane, in terms of affordable housing, reports of huge skyrocketing of rent in many parts 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. And so, we have a housing crisis, as you stated. 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 have. That was not addressed. 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, are they going to be able to afford said 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, is that FEMA will come in, it will immediately start working with the most marginalized communities and have an intentional focus on making sure that they can recover.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you about your governor and his stance on issues such as 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. And so, you know, the governor, he and other members of his party speak out of both sides of their mouth. You know, we saw members of the Republican delegation of congressional delegation of Florida vote against their own interests and their own constituents just this week about supplying 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. And right now, you know, DeSantis finds himself in that position. 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. When we are elected, we are public servants. But there are some folks who are more concerned about being public than they are concerned 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’re headed back down. The New York Post is reporting this. What do you say to them, 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. And by any other standard, you know, he would be facing prosecution for what he did. 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 woman in the 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? And are people continuing their activism around this in the midst of this storm?

REP. MICHELE RAYNER: You know, Amy, it has had significant impact. It has had significant impact on teachers. There have been teachers who have quit the education profession. We have had folks who are nervous of what they can say to 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. You have students who are reporting an uptick in bullying due to them being a member of the 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 folks, working people and working families.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Representative Michele Rayner, thank you so much for being with us, Democratic Florida state representative. After Hurricane Ian, Representative Rayner has been on the ground in the hardest-hit neighborhoods in Fort Myers, including Harlem Heights, Dunbar, helping with relief efforts. And a shoutout to the community radio station WMNF, who we turned to as the storm was hitting, serving the community in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

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