Florida

Trump brings politics to Panhandle, but not federal aid hurricane-ravaged area needs.

‘No sense in leaving now’: Hurricane Michael recovery begins in Mexico Beach

Joe Rodgers, 46, a resident of Mexico Beach, contemplates recovery after Hurricane Michael destroyed his grandmothers’ rental home. This city was particularly devastated by the Category 4 storm.
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Joe Rodgers, 46, a resident of Mexico Beach, contemplates recovery after Hurricane Michael destroyed his grandmothers’ rental home. This city was particularly devastated by the Category 4 storm.

President Donald Trump will visit the heart of his Florida base when he holds a campaign rally in Panama City Beach on Wednesday.

Except, it is a much different place than it was when he last stopped there as a candidate in 2016.

Hurricane Michael ripped through the Panhandle like a 300-mile-wide buzz saw last October, leaving almost total devastation in its wake. In Bay County, where Trump will campaign, 25 people died. The lucky ones are still living in trailers and tents. Businesses remain shuttered, many with no plans to re-open. About 5,000 students are homeless and one out of seven kids never returned to school.

More than 200 days after the Category 5 storm breached the coast, residents are desperately awaiting help from Washington. It’s believed this is the longest a modern Congress has taken to deliver aid after a storm. By comparison, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston on Aug. 17, 2017. Trump signed a relief package two weeks later.

The delay is so prolonged that the next hurricane season could begin June 1 before help is delivered for the last one.

“We truly are a forgotten storm,” Bay County Commissioner Philip “Griff” Griffitts said.

Somehow, Bay County has become a pawn in a proxy war between Democrats and Trump over how much to help Puerto Rico. Residents there have lived in dire conditions since 2017 when Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the island within two weeks of each other, wiping out power and killing an estimated 2,975 people.

The most recent $17.2 billion supplemental aid package offered by House Democrats would provide $600 million in food assistance and more than $500 million in other needs for Puerto Rico in addition to bringing much-needed relief to the Panhandle and victims of California wildfires, Hurricane Florence and the recent flooding in the Midwest.

Trump, though, has balked at giving more aid to Puerto Rico, often criticizing the island’s leaders and advancing conspiracy theories about the death count. He has at times threatened to withhold money from Democrat-controlled California as well.

Senate Republicans have tried to separate the debate over Puerto Rico from the 2018 disasters. But Democrats, fearful Trump will then shut out Americans in the U.S. territory, are demanding funding be included now.

Negotiations continued last week with Senate Republicans floating a new framework that matches the House Democrats on food assistance for Puerto Rico and includes $304 million more Community Development Block Grant assistance. A consensus wasn’t reached before lawmakers left Washington for the weekend.

“All of them need to be removed from office for derelict of duty,” said state Sen. Bill Montford, a Democrat representing Tallahassee.

Trump visited Bay County soon after Hurricane Michael hit. He toured the wreckage from a helicopter and remarked on the power of the storm, which he called, “like a very wide — extremely wide — tornado.” He handed out cases of water and said the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s response to the storm was going “beautifully.”

“We’re doing a lot, more than anybody would have ever done,” Trump said.

FEMA, though, has frustrated Panhandle officials at times. For example, the agency denied more than 33,000 applications, according to Bay County figures.

“The bureaucracy of FEMA is impressive and that’s not a compliment,” Griffitts said. “It has been a challenge.”

This week’s trip to Panama City Beach is political in nature and continues Trump’s tour of swing states in anticipation of the 2020 presidential race. It’s a place Trump knows well from his first campaign. He retreated to the friendly Panhandle crowds for a rally on Oct. 11, 2016 — four days after his voice was heard for the first time on an Access Hollywood tape declaring he would grab unsuspecting females by the genitals because “when you’re a star, they let you do it.”

That November, 71 percent of Bay County voters cast their ballots for Trump — matching the Republican’s best performance in any Florida county with more than 180,000 residents.

About 40 miles away from Trump’s scheduled rally is Mexico Beach, the epicenter of Hurricane Michael’s devastation and ground zero for the recovery. Mayor Al Cathey, a registered Democrat but a Trump voter in 2016, said it’s frustrating that the president would “come so close but not want to see what’s going on.”

“He knows where we are,” Cathey said. “We’re a desperate part of the Panhandle of Florida that just needs people to remember that we need something.”

U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn, a Panama City Republican, is confident Trump’s visit will put political pressure on Congress to reach a deal.

“I’m certain that is what he’s thinking,” Dunn said. “By going down there, he will shake it loose.”

The White House deferred questions about the trip to Trump’s campaign, which did not respond to an email.

Here is some of what is at stake if aid doesn’t arrive soon:

Without new funding from Congress, construction halted May 1 at nearby Tyndall Air Force Base. Michael’s winds reached 172 mph at the 78-year-old military installation, destroying housing and base facilities and damaging many of the 17 F-22 stealth fighters left behind. Those previously stationed there have been told not to expect to return anytime soon.

Bay County is awaiting reimbursement for $250 million in loans just to cover debris removal. Workers removed about 15.5 million cubic yards of debris across the county. The debt could threaten the financial viability of a county with an annual budget of $340 million.

State and local officials are concerned that 72 million tons of downed trees will soon lead to wildfires. In March, a small fire there spread to 668 acres because of the debris and difficulty reaching remote parts of the Panhandle, according to a letter from Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried to congressional leaders.

“It cannot be said more clearly or urgently,” Fried wrote. “The time for further delay on Hurricane Michael relief is over.”

Last week, Florida lawmakers finalized a budget that will set aside about $221 million for Hurricane Michael disaster relief in the 2019-20 budget. About half of that will go toward affordable housing, but it also includes funding for restoring emergency services for hospitals and first responders, repairs to municipal buildings, $15 million to fix roads and about $40 million for impacted schools.

The bulk of the heavy lifting, though, must come from Congress, Dunn said. It’s the only government with a purse big enough to pay for it.

“We’re not a community that has ever asked for handouts,” Griffitts said. “The one time that we need Washington to step up to the plate, they’re really failing the Panhandle.”

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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