Senate leaders ratchet up call for disaster aid

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Waiting nearly 200 days for a federal disaster-relief package has become “infuriating,” “disrespectful,” and “unacceptable,” state Cabinet members and lawmakers said Thursday as they called for assistance to areas devastated by Hurricane Michael in October.

The call for federal aid, made while Congress is in recess, came as state lawmakers continue to patch together a budget for next fiscal year. So far, lawmakers have agreed on about $200 million for storm-ravaged parts of Northwest Florida, a total described as “peanuts” compared to what is needed.

“The fact that Congress is playing politics with the Panhandle is absolutely out of control, insane and a travesty,” said state Rep. Jay Trumbull, a Panama City Republican who filed numerous bills seeking more than $600 million in state assistance for the region. “There are not enough terrible adjectives to use to describe the incompetence of what that place (Washington) is doing.”

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said the needs of the region are beyond what the state can cover. Those needs include housing, hospitals, debris removal and wildfire fighting.

“The state share of this is not enough to adequately address the needs,” said Montford, who filed a bill seeking $315 million in storm relief. “That’s why the federal government has got to get up and do their jobs. This is a federal responsibility. We don’t have enough money in the state.”

State Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who sent letters to congressional leaders Thursday, were joined by Trumbull, Montford and other Panhandle lawmakers and residents in a Capitol news conference.

The Category 5 Hurricane Michael made landfall Oct. 10 in Mexico Beach and caused heavy damage in communities such as Panama City, Port St. Joe, Blountstown and Marianna. The storm blew through a heavily rural part of the state.

“A recovery bill sits withering in Congress while our citizens are suffering,” Patronis, who is from Panama City, said during the news conference.

In his letter, Patronis wrote that Congress, which has had clashes about funding for disaster relief in Puerto Rico, is putting politics ahead of the people of the Panhandle. Puerto Rico sustained heavy damage in Hurricane Maria in 2017.

“Congress passed an aid package worth $11.1 billion less than one month after Hurricane Andrew in 1992,” Patronis wrote in letters to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “Congress approved an additional $51.8 billion relief and recovery 10 days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (in addition to the $10.4 billion approved four days after landfall); and Congress approved a disaster relief bill totaling approximately $50 billion 74 days after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Nearly 200 days have passed since Hurricane Michael forever changed this area and yet, Congress refuses to act.”

Fried said Congress needs to act immediately when it returns from recess Monday.

“We’re seeing debris on the ground like we’ve never seen in any other type of natural disaster,” Fried said. “This disaster debris that is on the ground is going to light on fire this summer. That means 72 million tons of debris that is on the ground is making fuel for forest fires this summer.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis last Friday sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking to increase the federal share of funding for post-storm cleanup from 75 percent to 90 percent after the strength of the deadly storm was upgraded to a Category 5.

DeSantis said in the letter that Michael’s impact will exceed $2.6 billion, with state agencies already reporting more than $1.1 billion in costs. Legislative leaders have said the state costs have exceeded $1.6 billion.

In January, DeSantis received a commitment from the White House for 100 percent reimbursement for 45 days’ worth of debris collection. The state was initially approved for 5 days of 100 percent repayments.

In the ongoing state budget talks, negotiators have designated for the Northwest Florida region about $40 million for local projects, $115 million for hurricane housing and $25 million in grants through the Division of Emergency Management to help local governments with basic operational costs.

Another $14.2 million has been set aside to help school districts in Bay, Gulf and Jackson counties.

Fried has requested $39 million for wildfire assistance. Additional money is also expected for water-related projects that will benefit the storm-impacted areas, Trumbull said.