What will arrive first on Florida’s Panhandle? Millions of dollars in federal assistance for the storm-ravaged area from the $19.1 billion federal disaster relief bill or the next hurricane?
The betting window is open with an over-and-under of 237 days for the money – the time between Hurricane Michael’s Oct. 10 Category 5 rampage across North Florida and Monday, when Congress finally overcame its partisan paralysis to deliver disaster assistance to communities in 40 states and territories recovering from natural disasters since 2017.
With hurricane season officially beginning June 1 and water temperatures in the northern Gulf of Mexico and southwestern Atlantic 3 to 6 degrees above “normal” – a tropical disturbance has already menaced Texas – the smart, and cynical, money is on the next storm arriving first.
The fact that it can take months, sometimes years, for disaster assistance grants to work its way through the administrative process to get to recipients was underscored Tuesday when Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Miami-Dade County would receive $78 million in reimbursement funding from FEMA … to cover Irma-related debris expenses from 2017.
The storm’s economic impact will also take years to tally. On May 31, the state’s Office of Insurance Regulation [OIR] reported 147,325 Michael-related claims had been filed, with estimated insured losses of $6.61 billion.
The vast majority of claims, 97,484, were filed by residential property owners. Overall, according to the OIR, 23,194 claims remain open, or about 15.7 percent, which means insured losses alone could top $8 billion.
Economists estimate the storm’s ultimate cost, when factoring in diminished income, production and uninsured losses, in the Panhandle will exceed $12 billion.
Michael scoured a 90-mile long, 60-mile wide swath of devastation across the Panhandle when it came ashore with a 14-foot storm surge on Mexico Beach.
The storm killed 26 people, left 1.1 million businesses/homes without electricity, damaged or destroyed more than 144,000 homes and wrecked 2.8 million acres of agricultural and forest land in North Florida.
Some economists estimate the storm could cost up to $25 billion in economic damages. Michael destroyed an estimated $1.49 billion in crops, including $1.3 billion in lost timber.
That downed timber adds up to a “massive continuous fuel bed” for potential wildfires, up to 10 or 20 times what littered forest floors about a year ago, Florida Forest Service Director Jim Karels told The Miami Herald.
The state’s Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] has spent more than $30 million clearing debris from waterways and its Forest Service Division has created 4,700 miles of firefighting roads to accelerate responses to wildfires.
County emergency management offices have borrowed millions to haul debris. Bay County, for instance, which took a face-first blow from Michael, has $250 million in loans to clear $390 million in debris – the equivalent of its entire annual operating budget.
All await reimbursements and other forms of economic recovery assistance from the $19.1 billion federal disaster relief bill passed Monday. President Donald Trump signed the bill Thursday.
The 70-page bill includes $1.67 billion to repair Tyndall Air Force Base, $2.4 billion in Community Development Block Grants [CDBG] disaster relief funding, $1.65 billion to rebuild damaged highways, $600 million in economic assistance programs, $480 million for timber restoration and $150 million for fishery losses that Panhandle residents, businesses and governments can tap into.
The disaster package was approved in a 354-58 vote. All 222 Democrats and 132 Republicans supported the bill, while 58 Republicans voted “no.”
Among the 58 Republicans who voted against the package were two Florida congressmen – U.S. Rep. Greg Steube of Sarasota and U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney of Naples.
In a Tuesday statement, Rooney said most of the spending in the package was never requested by the Trump administration.
“It has become all too common for Congress to use disaster funding to break through spending caps that are in place,” Rooney said. “There are legitimate needs for funding to assist with recovery from horrific natural disasters that affected Florida and other states around the country, however I could not support a bill that is completely fiscally irresponsible.”
Rooney said the legislation covers disasters dating back to 2015 and that less than 30 percent of the money would be spent in the current federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. He said $55 million would go to Head Start educational programs.
“While I'm glad the Panhandle received the funding it desperately needed, I could not in good conscience vote for the supplemental appropriation which was filled with outrageous spending and no plan to pay for it,” Steube said in a statement. “I ran for Congress refusing to add to the national debt, and this bill had a high price tag with no offset."