A month later, hurricane trips up Florida Panhandle voters

Environment

MEXICO BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) – Christy Todd said she is a regular voter in Mexico Beach, a Florida Panhandle community nearly obliterated by Hurricane Michael less than a month ago. But not this year.

A sign directs voters to a new polling location where Hurricane Michael destroyed many schools and other buildings used as polling stations in the area in Parker, during the midterm elections in Florida, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

“There’s so much going on, I just couldn’t make time for it,” she said, donning a dust mask as she made her way into the remains of the rental home she lived in for the past five years.

Todd, a 40-year-old who sells clothing on eBay, said she probably would have voted Republican in elections that will decide if U.S. President Donald Trump’s party maintains its grip on Congress.

But, Todd said, she did not know where to vote and had no time to find out. She has been living out of her car since the storm. 

Voters in the Panhandle, a conservative-leaning region, are considered vital this year to the Republican Party’s fortunes in Florida, where Governor Rick Scott is attempting to unseat incumbent Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum is running against Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis.

State and local Republican leaders have gone to great lengths to boost turnout, especially in hard-hit Bay County, which includes Mexico Beach and Gulf County. Officials have opened eight large voting centers in those areas in place of dozens of precinct-by-precinct local polling places that were damaged or destroyed in the storm.

Early voting was extended through Monday in Bay County, the only jurisdiction in Florida where voters could cast ballots on the eve of the election, according to Dave Ramba, a local Republican chairman and consultant for election supervisors statewide.

With persistent internet and telephone outages that were caused by the storm, Republican officials posted thousands of signs around Bay County to alert voters to changes in voting locations and hours, said James Waterstradt, the party’s county chairman.

Catina Hill, a registered Republican who said she votes in every election, voted at a station near Panama City but said the past month had been consumed by getting food, water and electricity.

“I came this close to not voting today,” Hill, a 43-year-old landlady, said as she left a polling site at the Parker United Methodist Church in her hometown of Parker. “Everything is piling up.”

Hill said she voted for Scott for U.S. Senate, but could not remember which candidate she chose for governor.

“The power’s constantly flickering and my kids are scared. I’m sleep deprived,” said Hill, lamenting that she could not properly research candidates and issues before voting.

Sherri Hawkins, 49, a registered Republican, drove 25 miles from tiny Fountain to vote in one of the big polling stations outside Panama City, which saw a steady stream of voters but no lines.

Many of her neighbors will not make it to the polls, she said. “A lot of them don’t have vehicles or gas money or the means to get here. It’s going to have a severe impact.”

TOSS-UP RACES

Public opinion polls show DeSantis trailing Gillum, who is seeking to become the state’s first black governor. Nelson is also seen leading Scott, his Republican challenger.

A lower-than-normal turnout in the Panhandle could hurt DeSantis and Scott. Gulf County state Republican committeeman David Ashbrook said he was concerned that storm-related dislocations would depress turnout in his more remote communities.

“Our biggest issue has just been transportation. We have a lot of people in outlying areas whose cars have been crushed, who are homeless,” he said. “Honestly, the election was the last thing on a lot of people’s minds. It’s sad, too, because this is an important one for the GOP in Florida.”

On the outskirts of Panama City where she owns a cleaning business, Melissa Hutchinson, 51, said she, her husband and two adult sons were “100 percent” behind Trump.

But, Hutchinson said on Monday, she was preoccupied with issues like whether she could afford to cut down a tree threatening to fall on her house, and did not expect to be able to vote.

“It’s what I’ve got to do to get my normal life running again,” she said outside her trailer home, which lacked electricity and running water for two weeks and was still without air conditioning.

Slideshow (8 Images)

Some people took solace in thinking that the disaster would likely dampen turnout among Democrats, too.

“I don’t think this storm said, ‘Oh we’re going to tear up Republicans’ houses and not Democrats,’” Karr said.

“It didn’t matter if you were a poor person renting a manufactured home or a wealthy doctor with a big home at Bay Point. The storm tore your stuff up.”

Reporting by Terray Sylvester; Writing by Bill Tarrant and Steve Gorman; Editing by Clive McKeef, Toni Reinhold

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