This is ridiculous. It’s been 6 months since Category 5 Hurricane Michael hit. These counties need more help than they’re getting

April 22, 2019 7:00 am

Hurricane Michael survivors near their former business in Mexico Beach after the storm. Credit: #neverforgottencoast documentary art project

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Before cynicism and disdain swallowed modern politics whole, it would have been certain political suicide for any elected leader to blow off helping people after a natural disaster.

But these are not normal times, and people who survived Hurricane Michael in the Florida Panhandle say that’s what’s happening to them.

Michael hit North Florida a full six months ago. And still, Congress has not passed a comprehensive disaster aid package. Democrats blame Republicans. Republicans blame Democrats. The plight of people in the Panhandle is now mixed up with politics over massive hurricane damage in Puerto Rico, wildfires, and floods in the Midwest.

Of all the things the federal government does with tax money, helping people who live in places that are flattened and flooded should be at the top of the list. Instead, Hurricane Michael survivors watch politicians breeze through the region to “tsk tsk” at the rubble piles and snapped-off forests. They are still waiting for Washington to give a damn.

Last week, the National Hurricane Center took a look at Hurricane Michael’s stats and decided to upgrade the storm to a Category 5 – which everybody who lived through it pretty much knew was the case. Winds at landfall were as high as 160 miles per hour and the storm surge was as high as 16 feet, submerging Mexico Beach’s old-timey cottages and washing them clean off the Earth. It’s the fourth strongest storm ever to hit the U.S., the National Hurricane Center says, and the first Category 5 storm to hit the U.S. since Andrew slammed into Miami in 1992.

A few national reporters have returned to the area to marvel at the still-evident destruction, always noting the irony about the marketing slogan for parts of the Panhandle – “The Forgotten Coast.”  Except they probably don’t know the backstory: that marketing slogan was conceived by a giant development company that saw dollar signs in the piney woods during the real estate boom. Mega-developers tried to sell woodsy subdivisions to baby boomers interested in gliding paddleboards through fresh water swamps, then swiftly exited when the real estate market collapsed. Now it turns out they dodged a bullet in a region where forests are startlingly snapped in half for miles.

Hurricane Michael victims and their advocates gathered at the state Capitol last week to plea for more aid from the Legislature since the federal money is gridlocked and doesn’t cover all that needs covering. State Sen. Bill Montford, a Democrat from Tallahassee, stood with University of Florida coach Steve Spurrier, whose daughter lives in Bay County.

“I just want to come and ask the Senate and House to really strongly consider and hopefully pass a bill to get these people help out there.,” Spurrier said at a news conference. “That’s the least we can do.”

Trump’s Federal Emergency Management Agency says it has spent $1.1 billion so far in hurricane relief, including 27,000 household repair grants, 11,000 Small Business Administration loans and $58 million in debris removal.

But locals, who have weathered all sorts of federal bureaucratic ridiculousness –  including waiting forever for (not enough) FEMA trailers to arrive – say they still aren’t feeling the federal love.

“Who’s going to take care of us?” an angry resident named Joel Cochrane asked at a Panama City meeting organized by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, according to the Panama City News Herald. “Why isn’t somebody up there in Washington, D.C., getting concerned?”

Rubio wasn’t at his constituent outreach meeting, but his Northwest Florida regional director, Mary Beth Barrows, was.

“I think part of the problem,” she told the crowd, “is some people don’t understand how bad it is here.”

A look at charity donations seems to bear that out. The American Red Cross says donations for Hurricane Michael victims totaled $35 million through the end of March, according to the Washington Post. The Post reports that Hurricane Florence, which hit the Carolinas a month earlier, drew $64.3 million in donations, 2017’s Hurricane Irma, which hit near Naples, drew $97 million, and Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas in 2017, attracted $522.7 million.

Last week, FEMA said it would send $18.5 million to reimburse Bay County for millions in debris-removal costs the county incurred right after the storm – an action so noteworthy that Gov. Ron DeSantis put out a press release partially taking credit for it and touting an “expedited reimbursement process.”

All of this is a drop in the bucket, experts say. Consider that the comprehensive disaster relief package Congress considered (and voted down) is more than $13 billion.

Conservative Republican U.S. Sen. Rubio blamed Congressional Democrats for torpedoing the disaster aid package, claiming they did it just to spite Trump.

“Many of my Democratic colleagues are genuinely good people. But the activist base of their party has forced many of them to take radical, left-wing and even socialist positions driven solely by an unhealthy desire to resist the president,” Rubio wrote in a guest column for the Northwest Daily News.

Democrats said they voted against the bill because it doesn’t include enough money for storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

DeSantis and Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott always boast about their friendship with Trump and how that helps Florida. It doesn’t look like that claim is bearing out on the battered ground Hurricane Michael left behind.

“It’s past time for state and federal officials to provide the support we’re entitled to after a natural disaster,” says Democrat Gwen Graham, who represented parts of the area while serving in Congress. Graham is co-chair of a bipartisan private relief effort called Rebuild 850, (850 is a telephone area code) along with former Republican Florida House speakers Allan Bense and Will Weatherford. (Another local charity to check out: #neverforgottencoast )

“I’d call on Gov. DeSantis to take advantage of his friendship with Donald Trump,” said Graham, who ran in the primary for governor last year. “If the president can find a way to write an executive order to build a wall, let’s have an executive order to help the people of North Florida.”

The Florida Legislature is about to start its budget negotiations this week, timed to finish at the beginning of May. Panhandle elected leaders will be pushing millions for a state loan program to help Hurricane Michael victims rebuild.

“People are losing hope,” state Rep. Loranne Ausley, a Democrat from the Tallahassee area said last week. “They are worried about where the next meal is coming from. Where they’re going to live. And imagine the toll that’s being taken on these proud people that don’t want to ask for help. They need our help.”

Hurricanes are capricious. Next time, the person pleading for help might be you.

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Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.