A bipartisan group of Florida’s leaders – including every member of the Cabinet, although not Gov. Ron DeSantis – demanded Thursday that Congress break the gridlock holding up disaster relief for Hurricane Michael victims in Northwest Florida.
Six months after the Category 5 storm made landfall, “a recovery bill sits withering in Congress while our citizens are suffering,” Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, a Republican, said during a news conference in the state Capitol.
The Panama City native choked up several times as he described the devastation across the Panhandle in the aftermath of the storm. People in the 15-county disaster area are still living in tents or under tarpaulins. Hospitals have cut services. So have schools. Insured losses are pegged at $11.1 billion.
“It is unacceptable, morally wrong, and just flat out almost corrupt the fact that we can’t get Washington to do their job,” said state Sen. Bill Montford, a Democrat from Tallahassee. “This is not a sole state responsibility. It is a federal responsibility.”
Also appearing were Attorney General Ashley Moody – another Republican – and Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, plus members of the Panhandle legislative delegation from both parties and representatives of the DeSantis administration.
The governor himself was traveling in South Florida, although he reportedly has been lobbying his political ally Donald Trump.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it has spent $1.1 billion so far in hurricane relief, including 27,000 household repair grants, 11,000 Small Business Administration loans and $58 million in debris removal.
That won’t scratch the surface.
The storm left 72 million tons of debris across 1.8 million acres of public and private land, including fallen, drying out timber that poses a severe fire risk as the summer approaches, according to officials including Patronis, who also serves as state fire marshal. The condition of these trees – snapped like matches – makes it hard for removal equipment to get in.
“Northwest Florida is not a Houston. It’s not a New York or New Jersey. We don’t have the critical mass of population that are screaming out loud, ‘What about us?’” Patronis said
An aid package is languishing in Congress, amid fighting between Democrats and Republicans over how much to send to victims of Michael and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
Fried declined to point the finger at either party in Congress. She’s distributed a video detailing the disaster to every member, she said.
“This is not a D vs. an R thing. This is about humanity and the future of our state and the people that are living in this area,” Fried said. “The fact that we have waited six-plus months for disaster relief money from the federal government is absolutely unacceptable.”
Patronis has sent letters demanding action to leaders of both parties in both chambers, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
“It takes 60 votes to get this relief package through the Senate. There are 53 Republicans, but there’s gridlock in getting Sen. Schumer to participate with the other needed seven votes to make it happen,” Patronis said.
So, what’s it going to take to get this done?
“Pressure,” Patronis said.