Florida Panhandle asks: Should disaster relief really be political?

May 8, 2019 by

CSMonitor

In normal times, helping citizens in distress through no fault of their own has been seen as a bedrock American value. But disaster relief has been politicized, adding to hurricane recovery challenges in the Florida Panhandle.

David Goldman/AP/File
An excavator tears down a damaged home from Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Florida, Jan. 25. Weather forecasters have since upgraded last fall’s hurricane from a Category 4 to a Category 5. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the storm’s upgraded status Friday, making Michael only the fourth storm on record to have hit the U.S. as a Category 5 hurricane.

After Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle last October, residents say their world looked like a war zone: houses blown apart, trees gone, ambulances transporting hospital patients to safety.

Now the storm is one for the record books. With new measurements showing that winds reached 160 miles an hour, Michael was upgraded retroactively to Category 5, only the fourth such top-level hurricane ever to hit the mainland United States.

But the residents of those Panhandle communities feel forgotten, as disaster relief for multiple natural catastrophes around the country has been stalled in Washington gridlock.

Greg Brudnicki and Mark McQueen, the mayor and city manager, respectively, of Panama City, Florida – which suffered immense damage – came to Washington this week to lobby for help. Residents are still living in cars, tents, trailers, even in the remnants of their homes underneath tarps, they say.

Already, 31 million cubic yards of debris have been removed from the storm-affected area, but cleanup is still going on, and money is running out.

“We understand that there’s problems in Puerto Rico,” says Mayor Brudnicki, referring to the continuing needs in the U.S. island commonwealth after Hurricanes Maria and Irma hit in 2017. “We understand that there’s partisan politics involved. That should not affect us being funded. This is for the citizens.”

A glimmer of hope came late Wednesday, when Senate Republicans added $300 million in aid to Puerto Rico to entice Democratic votes. That and other additions have boosted the $13.5 billion package to more than $17 billion, which aims to help places around the country hit by recent floods, fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes. President Donald Trump had objected to additional aid for Puerto Rico, saying the island has misspent the money it’s already received. The new proposal includes safeguards to prevent abuse.

President Trump hasn’t indicated if he will support the latest proposal, and there’s a potential catch: The president wants $4.5 billion for emergency spending on the Southern border, and if he insists that it be attached to disaster relief, the whole package could stall again. Democrats want to keep disaster aid separate from border money.

Bedrock values

In normal times, disaster relief is not a contentious issue. Helping citizens in distress through no fault of their own typically has been seen as a bedrock American value.

But these are not normal times. The standoff over disaster relief has echoes of the recent record-long government shutdown, in which Mr. Trump held out for border wall funding for 35 days before relenting.

“Presidents don’t typically target communities to prevent disaster aid from reaching them,” says Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University. “Singling out Puerto Rico seems highly unusual in that context.”

In January, Mr. Trump also weaponized disaster relief to California after the November wildfires, when he threatened to yank emergency funds over what he said was the state’s mismanagement of forests. But he didn’t follow through.

Trump critics say his approach to disaster relief is transparently political. California is a blue state, and Puerto Ricans tend to be Democrats, although those who live on the island don’t get to vote for president. The Florida Panhandle, however, is deep red – and a critical counterbalance to more liberal parts of the state, making Florida a major battleground in presidential races.

David Goldman/AP
A worker sprays straw around newly set up Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers for residents left homeless by Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Florida, Jan. 24. Several obstacles stand in the way of things returning to normalcy: For some, trailers from FEMA have been slow to arrive. For others, it has been hard to find an apartment where the rent hasn’t been jacked up in a suddenly very tight market.

Next Wednesday, Mr. Trump will hold a campaign rally in Panama City Beach, Florida – a separate jurisdiction from Panama City and a part of Bay County that came through Hurricane Michael with less damage. The president will surely talk about the storm, and could send a signal about the aid legislation, if Congress still hasn’t acted.

Mayor Brudnicki and Mr. McQueen, the city manager, welcome the presidential spotlight. “Nothing has happened with him not coming there. So what have I got to lose?” the mayor says.

But these officials don’t want to talk politics. They came to Washington to talk about urgent needs, like education, housing, and Tyndall Air Force Base, near Panama City, which suffered catastrophic damage in the hurricane and is now running on limited capacity.

Effective May 1, “all new projects” were to stop at Tyndall due to a lack of funding, said Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., at a press conference in the Capitol Tuesday with other senators from states still awaiting disaster funds.

“One-hundred percent of DOD employees who work at Tyndall live in our communities,” says Mr. McQueen, a retired two-star general who became city manager just two weeks before the hurricane hit. “It’s imperative we get our communities back up, because we have to enhance the readiness of Tyndall. That means housing, schools, medical facilities.”

Worries about the future

Despite the continuing challenges, Panama City is showing signs of renewal. May 1 saw a small celebration in the city’s downtown, when Greg and Rebecca Snow reopened Little Mustard Seed, their boutique craft and artisan store.

During the hurricane, the store sustained $400,000 worth of damage, and the Snows, who live above the store, weren’t sure they’d ever reopen.

“It was a big mountain we had to climb to work with our insurance company, with an attorney, and we’re still in the middle of that,” says Mr. Snow in a phone interview.

They still don’t have any storefront glass windows, and they’re still waiting on some back windows and a door. But “we just wanted to get it open and be back in the community,” says Mr. Snow, who builds custom furniture. In December, he and his wife handmade 500 Christmas tree ornaments for the city’s “Hope and Healing” event.

Mr. Snow’s joy at reopening the store is tempered by the continuing struggles of others and questions about Panama City’s future, including whether Tyndall will be rebuilt.

“People are wondering, if there’s not going to be any support, do you stay here in Bay County?” he says.

Mayor Brudnicki’s own business, a funeral home, suffered more than $1 million in damage, he says, but his employees “really stepped up” and the business has kept operating.

 

Donations and volunteers

Mr. McQueen points to a $10,000 donation for tree replacement from a Florida-based recovery business, Recromax. The immediate area lost an estimated 1 million trees, which are critical for the ecosystem – air, water, flood management, soil and erosion control.

In addition, Verizon has pledged to make Panama City one of the first cities in the nation to get 5G service – a feature that will make the area attractive for investment, says Mayor Brudnicki.

There’s also been a wave of volunteerism – 800,000 hours’ worth, says the mayor.

“We had so many college students coming for spring break to do cleanup,” says Mayor Brudnicki. “I was astounded.”

But volunteers alone can’t get the job done, the officials say.

Part of the problem in garnering publicity is that Hurricane Michael hit a relatively rural area. Pre-storm, the population of Panama City was 36,000 people, though the men are here to advocate for all of Bay County.

“We’re not New Orleans, we’re not Houston, we’re not Miami,” the mayor says. “We don’t have a J.J. Watt out there with his football.”

 

The annual budget for Panama City is $90 million, and cleanup alone will cost north of $150 million, the officials say. The city had $13 million in reserves, got $11 million in federal emergency money, and has borrowed an additional $75 million. But in three months, the money will run out, if there’s no federal appropriation.

“We developed a long-term recovery plan a week and a half after the storm. We were very proactive,” Mayor Brudnicki says. “We’ve done all we can do as a city.”

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