Federal Budget Showdown

Shutdown Day 3: Food distributor stalled, charter boat captains docked

 

crabin@miamiherald.com

Harriette Wilson-Greene stood on the ramp of an enormous warehouse filled with food Thursday, overseeing Rafik Tillman as he tossed box after heavy box filled with turkey, chicken and ham into the back of an overloaded Chevy Tahoe.

The food, as it has been for the past five years, was headed to the Omega Power and Place Ministry in Liberty City, where 160 needy families each week depend on it.

Wilson-Greene, Omega’s pastor, hopes — even prays — that Thursday’s haul won’t be the last for a while.

The food supplied to her from Feeding South Florida in Pembroke Pines was the last shipment to the non-profit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture until the partial federal government shutdown ends.

“Oh, my God,” exclaimed the pastor. “We’re faithful providers. Send out the call, we need more of everything.”

Feeding South Florida is just one of 202 food banks in the country hit hard by the Washington, D.C., stalemate. With 47 employees, it’s the largest of nine in Florida, responsible for 30 percent of statewide distribution.

The agency distributes 35 million pounds of food a year from its 70,000-square-foot warehouse, everything from bananas and pears, to turkeys and hams, to soups and nuts, even baby formula. The USDA funding accounts for more than one-third of Feeding South Florida’s supply chain. On Thursday, its six open loading bays were filled with volunteers heaving food into U-Hauls and other trucks.

The distribution center’s 325 partner agencies supply food to 949,910 people.

“They sent us an email saying we can’t order anything else. So once we distribute this, that’s it,” says Sari Vatske, the distributor’s vice president of programs and initiatives. “We need Publix, Target, Walmart and Winn-Dixie to step up. We’ll need to double efforts on food drives and fundraisers.”

The sting of the shutdown was a little harsher to those doing business with the federal government on Day 3 of the standoff: Food distributors’ shelves were emptying, small business loans were in a holding pattern, and Florida Bay’s waters became off-limits to some.

Still, the outlook for any type of agreement to fund the federal budget remained bleak. President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner continued trading barbs, the Treasury Department warned of dire risk to the economy if the shutdown turns into a deadlock over the nation’s debt limit, and work at the Capitol was halted for an hour when a woman tried to drive through barricades at the White House, then took off in her car with police in hot pursuit.

The car chase, which ended in gunfire, forced lawmakers in the House to recess even as they yet again considered bills to restore funding to selected parts of the government, an approach that has been repeatedly rejected by Senate Democrats and the president.

“The only thing preventing people from going back to work, and basic research starting back up and farmers and business owners getting their loans, the only thing that is preventing all that from happening right now, today, in the next five minutes is that Speaker John Boehner won’t even let the bill get a yes or no vote because he doesn’t want to anger the extremists in his party,” Obama said.

Boehner wouldn’t budge, calling the president’s position, a “my-way-or-the-highway approach.”

“The president’s insistence on steamrolling ahead with his flawed program is irresponsible,” the speaker responded.

The federal government has been partially shut down since midnight Monday, when the House refused to sign off on the federal budget unless the president’s signature healthcare initiative was defunded. Since then the House has tried several times to pass bills that would fund specific items like pay for veterans, or opening the nation’s parks. Those efforts have all failed.

Thursday back in South Florida, a day after limits for the National Institutes of Health made headlines, it was the fear of food drying up and a prohibition on fishing in waters of Florida Bay that took center stage.

Charter guides received a message from the National Park Service this week informing them that they are not permitted to take clients fishing in Florida Bay until the feds get back to work. That means that more than 1,100 square miles of prime fishing is off limits between the southern tip of the mainland to the Keys until further notice.

The closing affects not only fishing guides, but anyone with a license to conduct business in the park, including tour operators and paddling guides — anyone with a Commercial Use Authorization permit, said Dan Kimball, superintendent of Everglades and Dry Tortugas national parks.

Biscayne National Park is also off limits. Enforcement rangers will be on duty, Kimball said.

Capt. Mike Makowski, owner of Blackfoot Charters in Key Largo, estimates this eliminates 60 percent to 70 percent of his hunting grounds.

“This is going to put a lot of guys together in a small area close to the park,” Makowski said. “It’s going to be even worse on the weekend when we’re going to have to compete with the recreational anglers.”

The events in Washington have also affected small business loans. Because of the funding lapse, the Small Business Administration will only fund emergency loans, which means loans now in the works have come to a halt.

“Anybody who’s been waiting for a loan closing can’t close their loans because the bank isn’t closing without the SBA guarantee,” said Marjorie Weber, who chairs a Miami-Dade nonprofit called SCORE. “Everything is at a standstill.

The government shutdown even had folks in the Panhandle a little on edge. With Tropical Storm Karen bearing down and threatening to become a hurricane, the Florida National Guard announced half of its 2,000 full-time federal employees have been furloughed. It translates to valuable equipment that could be deployed during a storm not receiving proper maintenance.

“We will be affected,” said National Guard Capt. Melissa DeLeon. “Our maintenance guys have been furloughed, so they’re not here.”

State emergency managers are working with the National Guard to fund the positions in the short-term with state money. They intend to apply for reimbursement later.

Miami Herald Staff Writers Douglas Hanks, Ina Paiva Cordle and Hannah Sampson, and Keynoter Reporter David Goodhue contributed to this report, which was also supplemented with material from the Associated Press and News Service of Florida.

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