Hurricane Michael buried the Panhandle under so much debris, many local governments don’t have enough money to dig themselves out, stalling recovery efforts in the wake of the Oct. 10 Category 4 storm.
But the federal government – which was already paying three-quarters of the freight – has agreed to pay 100 percent of the costs to remove storm debris for 45 days and 90 percent beyond that, according to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis said after meeting with President Donald Trump last week, the White House had extended the number of days Hurricane Michael debris cleanup will be fully reimbursed by the federal government from five days to 45.
DeSantis said Trump was also considering his request that reimbursement to local governments now at 75 percent be raised to 90 percent.
The two measures would help accelerate recovery efforts, he said, by providing an incentive to clear to debris in a way that saves local taxpayers money.
“That’s real money. That’s going to take a burden off the communities here,” DeSantis said Friday while touring hurricane damage in Jackson County.
State officials estimate Michael – the storm’s Florida body count is 36 – left about 20 million cubic tons of debris in the Panhandle, dwarfing the 2 million cubic tons of debris left by Hurricane Irma, which spanned the Florida Keys to Jacksonville in September 2017.
Bay County expected to pay $400 million just for debris removal from unincorporated areas. Panama City was facing a $31 million tab to finish cleaning debris from its stormwater system.
In Mexico Beach, where only 500 of 2,700 homes now stand, removing the debris would likely to cost more than $25 million, more than 10 times the town's annual budget.
Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz said the extension “is a big deal – it’s hundreds of millions of dollars that is going to be relieved from our local governments’ and our state budgets.”
As of Jan. 25, Michael had resulted in 142,057 insurance claims, mostly from personal residential property, with projected insured losses at nearly $5.27 billion, according to numbers posted by the state Office of Insurance Regulation.
The estimate in total property damage is considered low because a significant percentage of residential properties in the region are uninsured. This is expected to delay the overall recovery.
Legislators last week in pre-session primers were apprised of an array of issues confronting the largely rural area – the “forgotten coast” that relies on tourism, agriculture and the military as its economic base,
According to the latest state estimate, Michael damaged 2.8 million acres of forest land, causing state timber farmers more than $1.3 billion of the overall $1.49 billion in estimated agricultural damages from the storm.
The area’s student population – a significant indicator how the recovery is proceeding poorly – is down by 20 percent. Several school districts are discussing closing some campuses.
Yet, according to a Miami Herald/Times analysis of contributions to three prominent national charities, donations for Hurricane Michael recovery are far below donations for recent hurricanes, including Florence, Irma and Harvey.
Herald/Times reports that the Salvation Army has received $2.8 million for its Hurricane Michael response. It received a combined $125 million after Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017.
United Way Worldwide received just under $750,000 for Hurricane Michael recovery, the Herald/Times reports – more than $10 million less than it received for its combined fund for hurricanes Irma and Maria, and $100,000 less than it received for the 2017 Mexican earthquake.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s website showed $100 million in corporate donations following Irma. After Michael, it is about $27 million.
Among early bills designed to assist the “forgotten coast” is Senate Bill 376 by Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, which would designate at least $50 million a year from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to any of the 14 counties that sustained damage from Michael.
The trust fund was established under a 2014 constitutional amendment that required setting aside a portion of documentary-stamp taxes for land and water conservation.
Under Montford’s proposal, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) could use trust-fund money in seven-year allocations for reforestation, ecosystem management, fire control measures, debris removal, beach re-nourishment, coastal protections and wastewater treatment facilities.
The DEP already uses trust fund proceeds for construction of the Everglades Agricultural Area Everglades Reservoir and Everglades, Lake Apopka and springs restoration.