Stop! Just stop playing politics with Hurricane Michael victims

May 21, 2019 8:14 am

Hurricane Michael survivors after the storm. #neverforgottencoast documentary project

Ever been to Seaside, the “New Urbanist” community in Walton County? It’s  gorgeous: front porches, picket fences, bike paths, glossy magnolia trees, and even glossier people.

I spent a week there earlier this month and didn’t encounter a single florescent Redneck Riviera t–shirt or Spring Breaker bar smelling of spilled beer. Seaside is the perfect Southern Living magazine version of Florida–Florida as the Tourist Board wants you to see it, sun-kissed, affluent, and seemingly untroubled by the political pissing contest in Washington.

It’s a peaceful, privileged place, quiet–except for the sound of bulldozers clearing land for more mansions and roofers stapling in shingles and cement mixers pouring slabs for the next Garden District-style house or adorable $2 million Mediterranean “cottage.”

Travel a few miles east on the Gulf coast, and it’s a different story. The powdered-sugar sand of the beaches is just as lovely, the water the same translucent blue-green.

But thousands of buildings are mere piles of rubble and it’s a rare roof not covered by blue tarps. Piles of drywall, plywood, shingles, shattered window frames, smashed glass and hunks of fencing sit uncollected by the road.

There’s repair going on, but it’s slow and partial. I saw more carpenters at work in Seaside than in Panama City. More backhoes, too.

People are still living in tents or their cars, crashing on a cousin’s sofa or huddled in a couple of rooms in their broken houses.

It’s been more than 200 days since Hurricane Michael hit.

Mexico Beach lies in ruins. Still.

Bristol is covered in debris, double-wides bisected by fallen trees. Still.

Port St. Joe struggles to restore its once-vibrant fisheries and rebuild vital infrastructure. Still.

Panama City faces huge budget shortfalls while tens of thousands try to decide whether to rebuild or simply leave while FEMA trailers sit empty at the county fairgrounds.

A processing problem, say the Feds.


I drove north through acres and acres of pines, snapped in half like so many cheap pencils. Those trees weren’t only a vital part of West Florida’s forest ecosystem,  they were many people’s bank accounts. Their retirement money. The kids’s college fund. Gone.

They were worth $1.3 billion.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the House of Representatives has passed a disaster relief bill, which won with 34 Republican votes.

Trump doesn’t want to sign it. He wants the bill to include $4.5 billion for his idiotic border wall.

And he wants to cut money for Puerto Rico, still in tatters from Hurricane Maria in 2017. Trump persists in claiming that the island–populated by US citizens–already got $91 billion, which is a lie: Puerto Rico has been promised $41 billion (not yet arrived) and spent about $11 billion.

I’ve been reading the beautifully-written posts by Kendall Middlemas Henley, a longtime resident of Panama City, who chronicles the continuing horrors of Hurricane Michael.

She recently said, “While I desperately wait for a comprehensive disaster relief bill from Congress and the president, I don’t want relief if it means Puerto Rico is denied much overdue assistance. The president would have us believe that Puerto Ricans are among those fearsome ‘others’ when, in fact, they are our fellow Americans. They deserve help just as much as we do. “

Trump lumbered into Panama City Beach the other day, reminding the populace (in case it had slipped their minds), “You were hit with a little hurricane called Michael.” He promised $448 million.

Rick Scott, Florida’s junior senator and Trump sycophant, has been telling anyone who will listen that it’s all the Democrats’s fault that Florida’s disaster money hasn’t yet appeared.

Allow me to refresh your memory: while we’d all like to see Congress get bipartisan and cooperative, Democrats have only controlled the House of Representatives since January 3rd. What were the Republicans doing in November and December 2018? What was Rick Scott doing? Trump’s his pal: why couldn’t he get a government controlled by a single party–his party–to pass something fast?

A relief bill for Hurricane Harvey took less than a month to pass in 2017; a relief bill for “Superstorm Sandy” took about 3 months in 2012.

Floridians have been waiting for more than seven months.

T shirt design
#neverforgottencoast logo

Looking around Florida’s northern Gulf coast, I wonder if Trump assumes that pretty much everybody from Carrabelle to Pensacola will vote for him no matter what. Certainly a woman I overheard arguing with her daughter in Seaside’s charming Modica Market will.

This lady, with a tub of gourmet pimiento cheese and two bottles of champagne in her basket, said, “President Trump is doing the best he can. It’s Nancy Pelosi that’s the problem.”

Those paying attention know better. The longer Trump holds up a relief bill because he finds Puerto Ricans somehow unworthy, the longer he holds out for wall funding, the worse things in Florida become.

Kendall Middlemas Henley reminds us: “for those of you who live elsewhere, please understand that we are not yet OK, and we are nowhere near back to ‘normal.’”

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Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts

Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo.