Stop! Just stop playing politics with Hurricane Michael victims

Hurricane Michael survivors after the storm. #neverforgottencoast documentary project

Ever been to Seaside, the “New Urbanist” community in Walton County? It’s  gorgeous: front porches, picket fences, bike paths, glossy magnolia trees, and even glossier people.

I spent a week there earlier this month and didn’t encounter a single florescent Redneck Riviera t–shirt or Spring Breaker bar smelling of spilled beer. Seaside is the perfect Southern Living magazine version of Florida–Florida as the Tourist Board wants you to see it, sun-kissed, affluent, and seemingly untroubled by the political pissing contest in Washington.

It’s a peaceful, privileged place, quiet–except for the sound of bulldozers clearing land for more mansions and roofers stapling in shingles and cement mixers pouring slabs for the next Garden District-style house or adorable $2 million Mediterranean “cottage.”

Travel a few miles east on the Gulf coast, and it’s a different story. The powdered-sugar sand of the beaches is just as lovely, the water the same translucent blue-green.

But thousands of buildings are mere piles of rubble and it’s a rare roof not covered by blue tarps. Piles of drywall, plywood, shingles, shattered window frames, smashed glass and hunks of fencing sit uncollected by the road.

There’s repair going on, but it’s slow and partial. I saw more carpenters at work in Seaside than in Panama City. More backhoes, too.

People are still living in tents or their cars, crashing on a cousin’s sofa or huddled in a couple of rooms in their broken houses.

It’s been more than 200 days since Hurricane Michael hit.

Mexico Beach lies in ruins. Still.

Bristol is covered in debris, double-wides bisected by fallen trees. Still.

Port St. Joe struggles to restore its once-vibrant fisheries and rebuild vital infrastructure. Still.

Panama City faces huge budget shortfalls while tens of thousands try to decide whether to rebuild or simply leave while FEMA trailers sit empty at the county fairgrounds.

A processing problem, say the Feds.

Still.

I drove north through acres and acres of pines, snapped in half like so many cheap pencils. Those trees weren’t only a vital part of West Florida’s forest ecosystem,  they were many people’s bank accounts. Their retirement money. The kids’s college fund. Gone.

They were worth $1.3 billion.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the House of Representatives has passed a disaster relief bill, which won with 34 Republican votes.

Trump doesn’t want to sign it. He wants the bill to include $4.5 billion for his idiotic border wall.

And he wants to cut money for Puerto Rico, still in tatters from Hurricane Maria in 2017. Trump persists in claiming that the island–populated by US citizens–already got $91 billion, which is a lie: Puerto Rico has been promised $41 billion (not yet arrived) and spent about $11 billion.

I’ve been reading the beautifully-written posts by Kendall Middlemas Henley, a longtime resident of Panama City, who chronicles the continuing horrors of Hurricane Michael.

She recently said, “While I desperately wait for a comprehensive disaster relief bill from Congress and the president, I don’t want relief if it means Puerto Rico is denied much overdue assistance. The president would have us believe that Puerto Ricans are among those fearsome ‘others’ when, in fact, they are our fellow Americans. They deserve help just as much as we do. “

Trump lumbered into Panama City Beach the other day, reminding the populace (in case it had slipped their minds), “You were hit with a little hurricane called Michael.” He promised $448 million.

Rick Scott, Florida’s junior senator and Trump sycophant, has been telling anyone who will listen that it’s all the Democrats’s fault that Florida’s disaster money hasn’t yet appeared.

Allow me to refresh your memory: while we’d all like to see Congress get bipartisan and cooperative, Democrats have only controlled the House of Representatives since January 3rd. What were the Republicans doing in November and December 2018? What was Rick Scott doing? Trump’s his pal: why couldn’t he get a government controlled by a single party–his party–to pass something fast?

A relief bill for Hurricane Harvey took less than a month to pass in 2017; a relief bill for “Superstorm Sandy” took about 3 months in 2012.

Floridians have been waiting for more than seven months.

T shirt design
#neverforgottencoast logo

Looking around Florida’s northern Gulf coast, I wonder if Trump assumes that pretty much everybody from Carrabelle to Pensacola will vote for him no matter what. Certainly a woman I overheard arguing with her daughter in Seaside’s charming Modica Market will.

This lady, with a tub of gourmet pimiento cheese and two bottles of champagne in her basket, said, “President Trump is doing the best he can. It’s Nancy Pelosi that’s the problem.”

Those paying attention know better. The longer Trump holds up a relief bill because he finds Puerto Ricans somehow unworthy, the longer he holds out for wall funding, the worse things in Florida become.

Kendall Middlemas Henley reminds us: “for those of you who live elsewhere, please understand that we are not yet OK, and we are nowhere near back to ‘normal.’”

Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books, most recently Dream State, an historical memoir of her Florida family, and Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She lives in Tallahassee, except for the times she runs off to Great Britain, desperate for a different government to satirize.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Well said Diane Roberts. Thank you for trying to help sweep back the waters of what seems to be a permanent political high-tide. Now that we can pick sides politically for the post-hurricane problems, we don’t have to worry about that nasty ol’ climate change thingy.

  2. Oh for the love of God, just get over the politics, HELP us here in Panama City and surrounding areas hit by Michael. The hell with the beach area frankly, they received not near what other areas did. This hard hit areas are the “working” people of the area, especially the beach area. And we are piled up with muliple people in rooms. It’s so stressful I can’t begin to explain, the things we did before seem to take forever and the repairs seem to be so slow and endless when you can afford or find affordable building materials. For us who must ” do it overselves” it seems impossible.

  3. I’m sorry my remark was posted before I was done. My son has lived in Panama City for about 13 years. He built a business for himself hired local people. Helped out big time after the Storm. Him and my grandson. He cut down trees cleared out major debris even helped people go to their family’s condo’s to make sure they were ok. Now he is jobless, homeless is son is back with mom. He has nothing and he isn’t the only person this has happened to. His spirit is broken. No hope for anything. I live in a different state and I am unable to help him. This in itself is killing me.
    I have nobody to go to myself. But I am ashamed of this country not helping the people in that region. They are human beings, and the world has forgot about them. I hope nothing happens like that where I live. At least the wheather down there is somewhat good all year. I went down there in November. 2018. I could not believe my eyes. The garbage everywhere. My part aches for everyone that went through the storm. But for your President and country to forget about you, we all should be sicken by this. Never would I ever dream this would happen to our own.
    God bless all the people that did help. There are people out there that have good hearts still.
    I just think Trump should be ashamed.

  4. This article is lies .Panama city is a total messed up city as fare as organization with money ot always goes to the wrong place just a messed up city .

  5. I think this is a misguided story. I responded to the devestaed path of Michael the day after the storm. The impact was massive. I stayed for two weeks and have returned several times. Much has been done. I find strong, grateful people. Even some that claim Michael a blessing.
    May seem odd, I know, as odd as it may be, they claim a sort coming together, a sense of community and cooperative effort, that, even though it is not required to have a devastating event, seems to be born out of these disasters.
    Business owners, elderly, young families alike have shared this with me thousands of times. Local churches have been the fundamental providers in much of the rural parts of the panhandle. There is no debate that huge amounts of work remain to be done. In light of that it is important to note that the entire power grid from Port St. Joe to I10 has been replaced, which was mainly finished within 60 days of impact. That thousands of roofs are repaired already as well.
    It is sad to watch the suffering for sure, remember this, it is through the suffering that these people, who were strong to begin with, will become even stronger. We would all want the restoration to go faster. We all want the beauty of Mexico beach back. We all want the timber industry from Callaway to Carabelle to Blountstown to Altha to be restored, even with all our desires, it will require much of the people and mother nature and the most important factor, time, to see these things through.
    There is the perspective that time is against progress, there is another as well, one which I hold, that time is the great healer. It will take time to get it all done. I have confidence, regardless of the governments actions or perhaps inactions as is identified in the article, that the faithful, courageous and loyal people of the Florida Panhandle will come out of this timeframe with the sense of accomplishment that the character they have to date attended this difficulty with, can only attain.
    Prayers and love to the people! You are not alone, forgotten about! Don’t let anyone drag your spirit down!

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