FILE - Hurricane Michael damage Florida

Residents in Tallahassee clean up after Hurricane Michael toppled trees and power lines and caused billions of dollars in damage in October 2018.

Nearly 137,000 property insurance claims totaling almost $5 billion in damages have been filed since Hurricane Michael ripped across Florida’s Panhandle on Oct. 10, killing at least 43 and forcing 375,000 to evacuate.

More than 102,000 people have registered for assistance and 16 counties have qualified for federal aid in the wake of the near-Category 5 storm, which wrecked 2.8 million acres of agricultural and forest land and destroyed an estimated $1.49 billion in crops, including $1.3 billion in lost timber.

“This is going to be a long, long recovery,” Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said Monday after attending one of two committee meetings dedicated to Hurricane Michael recovery efforts.

The Senate Agriculture Committee learned the Panhandle’s $56 million cotton farmers essentially lost most of the season’s crop with aquaculture, especially oyster farming, suffering 80 percent to 100 percent losses from Michael.

Other estimated agricultural losses: cattle, $43.31 million; peanuts, $23 million; nurseries/Floriculture, $16.11 million; poultry, eggs, $10.02 million; vegetables, $8.61 million; aquaculture, $5 million; fruits, $4.35 million and $1.96 million in apiary losses.

The most significant losses will be felt in the region’s lumber industry, which lost an estimated $1.3 billion in destroyed timber with more than 350,000 acres experiencing “catastrophic” damage.

Several timber operators who addressed the committee said there is a “staggering” amount of storm-created deadfall littering the forests, which will make it prime fuel for spring wildfires. They requested the state at least partially fund debris removal as a wildfire-threat reduction initiative.

According to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, more than 200 communities face an increased risk of wildfire as a result of Hurricane Michael. Fuel loadings, according to the agency, are 10 times more than normal.

State Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier told members of the Banking and Insurance Committee later Monday that the industry appears to have withstood the regionally “concentrated” storm’s impact.

Michael has resulted in 136,873 claims, mostly from personal residential property, with projected insured losses at nearly $4.9 billion, according to numbers posted Monday by the state’s Office of Insurance Regulation (OIR).

The Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund (FHCF), a reinsurance program commonly known as the “Cat Fund,” has reimbursed 12 carriers $220 million, with that number expected to grow to $650 million, FHCF Chief Operating Officer Anne Bert told the panel.

By comparison, Bert said Irma, which has drawn more than 1 million claims with estimated losses topping $11 billion, has required $1.57 billion in reimbursements to 85 companies from the FHCF.

The report lists FHCF as being in “very strong financial position” with a $13 billion projected year-end fund balance.

The FHCF is a state-run program administered by the State Board of Administration (SBA) created following Hurricane Andrew to provide stability to the residential property insurance market. Its only purpose is to sustain reimbursement to insurers for a portion of their catastrophic hurricane losses.

It is mandatory for insurers writing residential property insurance in Florida to participate in the FHCF. There were 165 insurers enrolled in the program in 2018, according to the OIR.

The mounting costs associated with Michael have been a topic of pre-session concern. Insurance analysts estimate that Michael caused between $10 billion and $12 billion in damages in Florida alone, although it can often take years to accurately calculate.

With 2017’s Hurricane Irma – a much larger but less violent storm that caused an estimated $30 billion in damage – the state has absorbed more than $40 billion in damages from the two storms.

In December, the Senate Appropriations Committee learned that the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research (OEDR) had revised its long-range budget forecast in the wake of the Category 4 storm, warning any chance for a projected $223 million 2019 budget surplus “has likely disappeared.”

Last week, emergency managers told Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis' Government Operations Transition Advisory Committee that recovery costs, just counting residential and business property damage, could easily spiral upward.

"Our conservative estimate is that this will be a $4.25 billion storm," Florida Emergency Response Team Director Kevin Guthrie told the transition panel. "My gut tells me it's going to be probably closer to $5 (billion) or more. So, again, just a lot of money that is being paid out and will be paid out on that particular disaster."