With both Congress and the Florida Legislature yet to pass disaster relief funding for Panhandle residents devastated by last fall’s Hurricane Michael, who better to try to rally state lawmakers to dig deep than some of the most legendary college football coaches in state history?
That’s sort of what happened at the Capitol on Thursday. While former Florida State University coach Bobby Bowden was unable to attend a press conference to discuss state disaster relief funds because of a family member’s wedding, former University of Florida coach Steve Spurrier made the trek to Tallahassee to make the ask to state lawmakers.
“I just want to come and ask the Senate and House to really strongly consider and hopefully pass a bill to get these people help out there. That’s the least we can do,” said Spurrier, whose daughter lives and teaches in Bay County, which has suffered $661 million in damages, according to the latest estimate Bay County submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The Bay County School Superintendent said last week that more than 3,700 children no longer attend schools in the area following the storm, forcing hundreds of layoffs with the possibility of a “mass” layoff upcoming without an infusion of funding.
“The aid comes per-student to the counties, so they’re getting less aid now than they did a year ago,” added Spurrier. “So, we’ve got a problem. And we need to do something about it. “
When it hit Florida six months ago, Hurricane Michael was a Category 4 storm, the most powerful on record to strike the Panhandle, with storm surge up to 14 feet and 155-mph winds. The epicenter was in Mexico Beach, located 25 miles southeast of Panama City.
Cliff Ellis is a native of Marianna, and a basketball coach at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina. It was a recent trip to Mexico Beach that spurred him to recruit other coaches to come to the state capital to ask for storm recovery funds..
“Folks, there are people living in tents,” said Ellis. “There are people actually living in cars. There are jobs being lost. It’s going to dry up if we don’t do something about it.”
State Senator Bill Montford, a Democrat representing North Florida, has been the lead lawmaker in Tallahassee working on getting state disaster relief funds, along with Panhandle area Republican senators Doug Broxson and George Gainer.
While the state Senate has earmarked approximately $200 million for relief to the area, Montford wants more. He dropped a request for $315 million for a relief package earlier this week, saying that by removing his proposal, the Legislature will be able to continue to discuss funding when budget negotiations begin next week.
“I firmly believe that the Florida Legislature will step up,” Montford said. “I don’t have a number for it. Whatever it is will be appreciated and be used very wisely.”
The big story is how the rest of the country, including Congress, has failed to respond financially to the victims of Hurricane Michael in comparison to other recent natural disasters.
The Washington Post recently reported that the American Red Cross has collected just $35 million in donations for Hurricane Michael victims, compared to $64 million for Hurricane Florence, $97 million for Hurricane Irma and $522 million for Harvey.
More stunningly, Congress has yet to allocate any funding for Hurricane Michael relief (FEMA did approve $18.5 million last week to Florida to assist Bay County with reimbursement for the costs of debris removal).
The latest holdup between Republicans and Democrats in Congress has centered on a dispute about funding for Puerto Rico. Democrats want more money earmarked for the island in a supplemental bill, but President Trump and congressional Republicans disagree.
“This country is better than to let our citizens in North Florida to hurt the way they are hurting,” said the normally mild-mannered Montford. “It is wrong. It is morally wrong for this country to let any citizen in this state live in the manner to which people fifty, one hundred miles from here are living.”
Montford added that the number of school children who have become homeless in Bay County has tripled, while the number of those “Baker Acted” has doubled (meaning those who have temporarily detained for mental health evaluation and treatment).
“People are losing hope,” added state Rep. Loranne Ausley, a Democrat from the Tallahassee area. “They are worried about where the next meal is coming from. Where they’re going to live. And imagine the toll that’s being taken on these proud people that don’t want to ask for help. They need our help.”
The state Legislature has just two weeks to come up with a plan to provide relief for those affected in the Panhandle. In Washington, the wait will be longer, as Congress is out on break until the last week of April.