TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Forty-eight hours after Hurricane Idalia hit the state of Florida, state officials said Friday they've made solid progress in their efforts to recover. But power, schools and other needs remain, and now the president is planning a visit.
At last check, around 2 p.m. Friday, about 84,000 Floridians were still waiting to get power back. The vast majority are in rural parts of the Big Bend area. Officials said they've reconnected nearly a half million customers.
During a morning news conference, Florida Lt. Governor Jeanette Núñez said impacted schools were making strides to reopen their facilities as soon as possible. She said children needed to return to the classroom and that normalcy was "critically important."
"Today, I am pleased to report that 58 of our 67 counties — school districts are open," she said. "They are up and running. We expect that number to grow over the weekend. Ten of our 12 state universities are open, and 26 of our 28 state colleges."
For struggling businesses, Florida Commerce has opened up a $20 million emergency bridge loan program to provide quick short-term funding. Businesses in the following counties, including sole proprietors, are eligible:
Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Citrus, Columbia, Dixie, Franklin, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Hernando, Hillsborough, Jefferson, Lafayette, Leon, Levy, Madison, Manatee, Marion, Pasco, Pinellas, Sumter, Suwannee, Taylor, Union and Wakulla counties.
Those who qualify for the program can apply for loans of up to $50,000 to keep the lights on until repairs are complete and customers return.
Florida officials are also seeking to expand their federal major disaster declaration, which was approved for seven counties on Thursday. Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he'd like to include places like Madison, which experienced 100% power loss during the storm.
"We spoke with FEMA," DeSantis said. "We fully anticipate more counties being added."
DeSantis was expected to meet with President Joe Biden on Saturday to survey Idalia's damage. The president told reporters Friday he was planning a face-to-face with his 2024 political rival. DeSantis didn't independently confirm that at a news conference earlier in the day. However, later on Friday, the governor's press secretary said there were no plans for Biden and DeSantis to cross paths.
"We don't have any plans for the governor to meet with the president tomorrow," DeSantis Press Secretary Jeremy Redfern said. "In these rural communities, and so soon after impact, the security preparations alone that would go into setting up such a meeting would shut down ongoing recovery efforts."
"It would be very disruptive to have the whole security apparatus that goes — there's only so many ways to get into these places," DeSantis said. "What we want to do is make sure that the power restoration continues, that the relief efforts continue, and that we don't have any interruption in that."
Meanwhile, another warning is coming from Florida's Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis to those with property damage. The CFO said that predators are out there masquerading as contractors — snatching money and never doing repairs.
"Beware of scammers," Patronis said. "Just don't take the bait. If it sounds too good to be true — please don't do it. Make sure they're a licensed Florida contractor— make sure there is a license number. It's got to be outside of the vehicle, got to be on the business card. It's got to be on the pamphlets and literature."
For more information, Patronis directed Floridians to the Florida Disaster website.