Kevin Guthrie used the word “resiliency” or its derivatives 13 times in his appearance before the Flagler Tiger Bay Club today, underscoring the state director of emergency management’s focus in the aftermath of Hurricanes Ian and Nicole. Then Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin almost put him on the spot.
“We use the word resiliency in many, many different ways. It’s starting to lose some of its meaning and teeth,” Alfin said. “My question to you is for local leaders that we have here today,” and there were many, “resiliency means to recover, to recover quickly. But my question is more about how do we recover differently, because if we recover the same way we have in the past, we’re not really making any progress.”
Guthrie is a wonk, a data nerd and an all-business man of action. He can play politics but he doesn’t like it (he used to be Flagler County’s emergency management director and got out when the politics became toxic and the County Commission didn’t realize what it had in him). Still, he is essentially a member of the DeSantis administration. It’s not a climate change denying administration the way its predecessor’s was (Gov. Rick Scott forbade the use of words like “climate change” in official documents). DeSantis isn’t fond of the words, either–he purposely puts the words in quote–or any “left-wing stuff” to fight it. His administration has done nothing to combat C)2 emissions or sea rise and other factors that are now aggravating natural disasters and make “resiliency” essential.
So Guthrie had to choose his words. He did, and with the kind of preface that illustrates how careful state officials have to be when they speak the kind of language that could be mistaken fora Greenpeace dialect.
“I will tell you, and this is 100 percent Kevin Guthrie talking from the hip,” Guthrie said. “It is not the policy of any agency or governor or anything of that nature, okay? so I just want to qualify that with my dear friend. I think the answer to that is, to your point, Dave: we’ve got to rethink resiliency. We’ve got to rethink how we do that. And it’s got to–as I mentioned in my talk–we have got to get to a point where we no longer just restore the beach. We’ve got to figure out what is the engineering, what is the things that need to be behind the scenes.”
He described flying over Fort Myers a dozen times after Hurricane Ian devastated the region. “Fort Myers Beach is catastrophic, biblical cataclysmic, whatever word you want to use,” Guthrie said. “90 percent of the structures out there did not survive. 90 percent of them are gone. It’s going to be rebuilding an entire city. But when that went across that one-third-of-a-mile island, one-quarter-mile island of Fort Myers Beach, and it hit the mangroves? 18-foot storm surge flattened to four to six feet. Nature-based solution has certainly got to be part of that conversation.” There was some applause, the only applause he got aside from the enthusiastic rounds he got at the beginning and end of his talk.
He got greener before modulating. “And again, it’s got to be, how do we do coral reefs? How do we do mangroves? Again, I don’t want to be lynched by environmentalist. But beach quality sand is hard to come by. in Volusia County, where’s the majority of the beach quality sand right now? It’s in the Intracoastal. So there needs to be a dredging situation where we pull that sand, that beach-quality sand, back out of the Intracoastal and put it back on the beach. That’s fact. So it may have to be brought offshore onto the beach. It may be able to be trucked in from somewhere else and put on the beach. But even the holistic version of bringing the sand back, bringing the beach back, has got to include some type of engineering. That is, a resilient engineering that’s going to be there for the next 50 years, 100 years.”
Guthrie is also partial to sea walls. He cited the Marineland sea wall. “To my knowledge, no issues. It’s still there,” he said, which was actually correct: the sea wall is still there, but the beach, the dunes, the vegetation no longer are: the stretch in front of the sea wall, once redolent with sandy dunes and ocean greenery, is now a red, Martian landscape of impassable rock. Guthrie appeared to be aware. “Now, do I like seeing a sea wall in Marineland? Probably not. But what can we do different that will actually have the seawall there, but then how do we cosmetically, how do we put the lipstick on the pig? We’ve got to get to that point. And it’s got to be a holistic solution. It’s going to involve academia. It’s going to involve federal and state agencies, local agencies, it’s got to involve homeowners on how we get that done.”
In an interview after his talk he specified: he was not talking about sea walls from Palm Beach to Jacksonville, but a mixture of re-engineering that mixes sea walls with natural solutions. “My job is to get the right smart people together and just coordinate that conversation on behalf of the government to do those things,” he said.
Still, to that point he’d not uttered the words “climate change” once, nor mentioned any role for policies tackling climate change, as opposed to policies and approaches focusing on “resiliency”–or how to deal with consequences of climate change without addressing them at the source. So Guthrie was asked point blank: where are Florida’s policies addressing climate change?
“Certainly, Governor DeSantis in the last four years has done more for Everglades restoration and return to the natural flow of water in the Everglades than any other Republican governor ever in the history of the state,” Guthrie said. “I think the best predictor of future performance is past performance.” He said the governor brought the right people together to get to that point. “He’s given me direction to start bringing the necessary agencies together” and devise solutions. “And then you’ll see the governor come out with some type of announcement in the future, a legislature announcement in the future, on how we’re going to try to start building back a more resilient coastline.” He pointed to the special session of the Legislature starting Dec. 12 as the first indications in that regard.
It had been a tough run for Guthrie in the last few weeks, with two hurricanes back to back. Guthrie apologized for losing track of time as he started his talk, now knowing if it was morning or afternoon. “We’ve been working 57 days straight, 16, 20-hour days” between the two hurricanes, he said, before delving into the way he’s managed his division, the direction he’s given it and the principles he runs by.
“My title is not state commander. My title in a disaster is state coordinating officer. I’m not in command and control of anything. Now, statutorily, do I get to command and control? Yes, I do. But the title that’s given to me is as state coordinating officer. So again, we want to communicate, coordinate, collaborate with our partners for resilient Florida and hopefully, people like Jonathan and others in emergency management”–he was referring to Jonathan Lord, Flagler County’s emergency management director–“have seen a fundamental shift in difference in that from being a command and control freak, for lack of a better term, to helping coordinate, collaborate with each other.”
After acknowledging the half dozen elected officials and judge in the room, Guthrie singled out one person for particular praise: Isabella Tarsitano, a home-schooled sophomore and intern at Flagler County Emergency Management who launched a website called Hurricane Helpers, guiding residents to emergency services, and who organizes efforts ” to help members of our community prepare and clean up after a hurricane.”
It was Guthrie’s third visit to Flagler in four weeks, the first two with DeSantis. Guthrie repeated his intention to retire to Flagler. He could’ve caused a few myocardial infarctions among the county commissioners in the room (Greg Hansen sat at his table) when he said that he might run for a county commission seat, but he softened that warning when he said he wouldn’t move back until he’s 62 or older. That’s not for another decade.