TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Northwest Florida’s hurricane-ravaged timber industry may benefit from lessons learned in the sluggish distribution of federal money to citrus growers after Hurricane Irma.
But it will still take some time before money reaches Panhandle timber growers from the $19.1 billion national disaster-relief package signed Thursday by President Donald Trump.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, appearing Friday with Gov. Ron DeSantis at a roundtable discussion in the governor’s mansion, said it should take “weeks, not months,” to fully roll out operations to assist Florida’s timber industry, which sustained an estimated $1.3 billion in losses from October’s Hurricane Michael.
Perdue said his agency must first get the application paperwork and process in order.
“We don’t want a bureaucratic hurdle about that, but we want to do things smartly, but honestly and with integrity,” Perdue said. “Like all of us, when there is free money on the table, everybody dives for it, so we have to make sure we have the right people at the table.”
Perdue said the timber assistance should emulate a $340 million block grant created for Florida citrus growers as part of a separate federal disaster package approved in February 2018.
Florida citrus growers incurred more than $761 million in losses from Hurricane Irma in September 2017.
But it took months before applications were accepted from citrus growers for the block grant funds, and just $3 million had been distributed as 2019 began.
After DeSantis took office in January, the application process was accelerated.
Jared Moskowitz, DeSantis’ emergency management director, said that $72 million has reached the citrus groves as of Friday.
The latest federal disaster-relief package includes $4.5 billion for agriculture-related losses nationwide. Florida anticipates getting $480 million for forest restoration.
State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said the quicker the reforestation is underway “will save not only the area, but the economy and the environment.”
Alan Shelby, executive vice president of the Florida Forestry Association, estimated that 16,000 landowners in the state were impacted by the Oct. 10 storm.
Perdue said a challenge for the federal government is that timber, which takes decades to grow, isn’t like more seasonal crops.
“There’s going to be a lot of discovery that has to take place, regarding what the degree of damage was, (and) quantify that,” Perdue said. “That will take a lot of people, and we look forward with working with the state folks, as well, in getting that done.”
The state has spent $1.8 billion assisting in the cleanup and recovery from Michael, and Florida officials have waited nearly eight months for the federal disaster package.
DeSantis noted that Mexico Beach, which took the brunt of Michael’s landfall, has an operating budget of about $3 million a year. Without outside assistance, it would be left on its own to handle an $80 million debris-cleanup bill.
Meanwhile, concerns are growing that much of the 72 million tons of debris left by Michael remains on the ground, heightening concerns of summer wildfires.
Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, said 80 percent of the marketable timber that families had relied upon as future investments is “rotting, waiting to catch fire.”
“We’re still sitting in a very precarious position with all the damage we’re looking at,” Gainer said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, said of the 1,200 miles of water in the hurricane-impacted area, about 25 miles have been cleared of debris.
The $91.1 billion state budget that lawmakers approved last month for the upcoming fiscal year includes $4.98 million to purchase an aircraft for the Florida Forestry Service. DeSantis had not formally received the budget from the Legislature as of Friday morning, but he said he plans to approve the new aircraft to help fight wildfires.