By Tamar Hallerman and Greg Bluestein
WASHINGTON – As Hurricane Irma barreled toward the Southeast last weekend, the congressman representing Georgia’s coastal region was 900 miles away, watching Georgia's football team edge out Notre Dame in Indiana.
U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, was one of thousands of Bulldog fans to flood Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend on Saturday for the first-in-a-generation matchup, even as his 1st Congressional District prepared for one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic.
“It was awesome,” the UGA grad said about the game on Wednesday. “That’s such a tough place to go into and win and for us to win like that, it was just awesome.”
Many Georgians took unplanned trips while under mandatory evacuation orders from Gov. Nathan Deal in the days leading up to the historic storm. But the optics of Carter’s travels raise questions about his preparations and response to the monstrous hurricane.
Carter's office disputed the suggestion that the lawmaker was anything but fully engaged in the lead-up to the storm and in the days since.
“I, as well as my office, remained in contact with officials at every level, emergency coordinators and first responders, and constituents throughout preparations for and now recovery from Hurricane Irma," Carter said in a written statement later on Wednesday.
The second-term lawmaker returned to Georgia on Sunday evening, he said, just as the storm was making landfall in Florida. It took even more time for him to return home to the shore.
The storm's full fury hit Georgia on Monday, and it caused historic flooding along the coast. Hundreds of thousands of coastal residents lost power, and sea water flooded River Street in downtown Savannah. Nearby Tybee Island was inaccessible, as was St. Simons Island further down the coast.
Deal said it was the first time a governor declared a state of emergency in all of Georgia's 159 counties.
Carter said he returned to his district “as soon as I could” and that he was on “one of the first flights to get back down there." Some of Carter’s constituents were not able to return to their homes until as late as Tuesday.
“The most important point for me to be there is after the fact,” Carter said. “That’s when we need the help, particularly the federal help. The emergency personnel, they’re doing their work, and I only get in the way when I’m trying to be there before they get to do their part.”
Since the Irma menaced the Southeast, Carter has become one of the most vocal advocates for Irma recovery efforts in Congress.
In an emailed statement after the AJC's initial interview, Carter outlined what he has done in response to the storm:
“I, as well as my office, remained in contact with officials at every level, emergency coordinators and first responders, and constituents throughout preparations for and now recovery from Hurricane Irma. In preparation for the storm, my office contacted every county in the First District to ensure we were as prepared as possible after learning lessons from Hurricane Matthew response. That contact continued through a mandatory evacuation and will remain constant until we have fully recovered from this storm. I have traveled the district to survey damage, meet with emergency officials, and ensure the federal government is providing what is necessary for the people of the First District.
“I have visited the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, Westlake Apartments, and the areas hit hardest like St. Marys where I met with local officials and emergency response teams. I have also distributed critical information to constituents before and after the storm as well as maintained a Hurricane Irma web page to ensure constituents have the information they need.”
Since the storm, Carter co-authored two letters to President Donald Trump requesting that the administration unlock federal aid for local victims of the storm, and on Wednesday he asked the IRS for tax relief for Georgians impacted by Irma.
Carter’s office also tweeted out photos of him surveying local damage from a helicopter with the Georgia National Guard and meeting with officials from the Chatham County Emergency Management Agency in Savannah.
Carter said Congress will also need to soon step up to approve more recovery money.
The $15 billion in aid lawmakers initially approved for Hurricane Harvey and Irma recovery last week “helps,” Carter said Wednesday, “but it’s only the beginning.”
“This should not be political at all,” he said. “When your home is flooded, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat.”
Carter is not the only Georgia politician to face questions about his whereabouts while storms struck the region. Gov. Nathan Deal attracted attention for attending a state tourism gala and posing for photos with actors dressed as Gone with the Wind characters while an oncoming snowstorm brought Atlanta to its knees.