TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As state lawmakers return to the Florida Capitol for the first round of committee weeks, one of the most pressing issues is hurricane recovery, especially from Hurricane Michael.
Effects of the storm, which hit nearly a year ago, are still being felt in the Panhandle.
In many ways, the Panhandle has lived up to its nickname, "The Forgotten Coast." A survey conducted this summer found 1 in 3 Floridians aren't even aware the storm hit in 2018.
"We can't afford to forget," said Sen. Bill Montford, a Democrat who represents multiple counties that continue to feel the impacts of Michael. "Now that the federal government has acted, we've got to see where the state can fill in -- to fill in some holes, if you will -- housing, ag (agriculture), just jobs themselves. So we do have a roll, the state does."
The state is forecasting it will have $800 million less over the next two years than previously expected. But Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said a tight budget won't prevent the Legislature from addressing the needs in the Panhandle.
"That storm may have been forgotten in other parts of the country, but it is front and center on our minds," Bradley said.
It's not only dollars that lawmakers have to offer to the Panhandle. Legislators also are looking at ways to speed up insurance claims and prevent contractors from overcharging for storm repairs.
Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, said delayed insurance payments contributed to Bay County losing nearly 20% of its population after the storm.
"A claim ought to be up or down within a year. A year is a long time to wait and it's very expensive trying to find a place you can live in the meantime," Gainer said.
In addition, Gainer said he hopes to introduce legislation that could improve cellphone communications after a storm hits.
Senators who the Capitol News Service spoke with also emphasized the need to help the timber industry, which took a huge hit during Michael.
While lawmakers are committed to continuing support for the Panhandle this upcoming legislative session, it will likely be decades before the area is fully recovered.