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Land and water money considered in storm recovery

Agriculture commissioner tours Hurricane Michael damage in Florida Panhandle

MARIANNA, Fla. – Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried indicated Monday she could back a legislative proposal to use money voters designated for land and water projects to help recovery efforts from Hurricane Michael.

More than three months after the storm struck the Panhandle, the city of Marianna still looks like a war zone. Tarp-covered roofs dot the landscape, debris litters the ground and some structures are in total ruin. 

"It's our jobs to come here, see and bear witness to what's happening here," Fried said. 

After reviewing agricultural damages Monday, Fried said at Chipola College in Marianna that her office was looking into a proposal (SB 376) by Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, that would designate at least $50 million a year from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to counties that sustained damage in the October hurricane.

She added, “I do believe that Amendment 1 funding is something that can be utilized to help in this recovery” effort.

The trust fund receives money under a 2014 constitutional amendment that required setting aside a portion of documentary-stamp taxes for land and water conservation.

The state already uses portions of the trust fund for such things as Everglades restoration, Lake Apopka restoration, the construction of a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area and springs restoration.

Montford, who represents some of the hardest-hit counties in the Oct. 10 hurricane, filed the bill for consideration during the legislative session that starts March 5.

Fried said hurricane recovery is a top priority.

"They need our help every day for the recovery efforts and I'm committed to seeing this through," she said.

Fried's main focus will be on the agricultural industry, helping farmers get back to work and restoring the local economy. Fried also wants to secure state funds to back low-cost grant programs to offset the cost of lost crops for farmers in the Panhandle.

Recent figures show public donations to help Hurricane Michael victims are shockingly less than other recent storms. State Sen. George Gainer, R- Panama City, said the lack of attention is disheartening.

“We've got a lot of help from Tallahassee, but we need a lot more," Gainer said. 

The clock is ticking for recovery to speed up. Florida Forest Service Director Jim Karels said there's between 10 and 20 times more debris on the ground now than normal. All that debris is fuel for wildfires and with the dry season rapidly approaching it could set the area up for another disaster.

“The threat's up significantly if it stops raining," Karels said. "Smoke will be a huge issue."