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Florida and feds still working on timber money

Timber growers suffered an estimated $1.3 billion loss in Hurricane Michael

Florida timber farmers suffered catastrophic losses when Hurricane Michael came ashore in October 2018 and destroyed 2.8 million acres of timberland. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
Florida timber farmers suffered catastrophic losses when Hurricane Michael came ashore in October 2018 and destroyed 2.8 million acres of timberland. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File) (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida has its “foot on the gas pedal” to get federal money to timber growers who sustained massive damage when Hurricane Michael hit the Panhandle last year.

But agreements are still being finalized, with no set timeline for the first payments to go out from a $380.7 million block grant.

Franco Ripple, a spokesman for state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, said Monday officials intend to get the needed agreements finalized “as soon as possible.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working on the grant agreements with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Florida Division of Emergency Management and other states that sustained damage, Ripple said.

The block grant, awarded to Florida as part of a broader relief package, was announced Nov. 8. The Category 5 Hurricane Michael made landfall Oct. 10, 2018, in Mexico Beach and cut a path of destruction through parts of the Panhandle before barreling into Georgia.

The timber industry is a key part of the economy in areas of Northwest Florida, and timber growers suffered an estimated $1.3 billion of the state’s $1.49 billion in agricultural losses from the storm.

The grant money is expected to cover the lost value of timber and to help growers clear downed trees and replant.

An estimated 550 million trees in Florida, weighing 72 million tons, were damaged or destroyed by the storm. The debris left by Michael was estimated to be 10 times the amount left by Hurricane Irma, which hit far more areas of the state in September 2017.

The money will also allow timber producers to repair and replace irrigation systems damaged by the storm.

Florida Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz said last week that work continues on finalizing the agreements with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We constantly have to keep our foot on the gas pedal to speed the process up,” Moskowitz said while in Bay County for an announcement by Gov. Ron DeSantis related to distributing about $20 million in state grants to communities still recovering from the hurricane.

The expected timber money is styled after a $343 million federal block grant awarded by Congress in February 2018 to help Florida’s citrus industry, which took an estimated $761 million hit from Hurricane Irma.

The Division of Emergency Management didn’t secure the post-Irma money until September 2018.

Moskowitz said that when DeSantis came into office in January, only about $600,000 of the citrus block grant had been awarded. Since that time, more than $200 million has been distributed, Moskowitz said.

“We look forward to replicating that same sort of progress for the timber industry here in the Panhandle, so that people can get their crops back into the ground and so that they can recover economically,” Moskowitz said.