Time is running out for hurricane victims in Northwest Florida, a group of state and local leaders warned Thursday, citing continuing suffering since Category 5 Hurricane Michael bludgeoned the region on Oct. 10 last year.
Some post-storm assistance has arrived, but the hardest-hit counties were already impoverished when Michael hit and may never recover unless they can regrow their tax bases within five years, predicted Craig Fugate, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
Money and expertise are urgently needed, even at the risk of bypassing safeguards designed to prevent fraud, waste and abuse, the officials agreed.
“We can’t wait for perfect. We don’t have time,” Fugate, who joined former Florida House Speakers Allan Bense and Will Weatherford, state Sen. Bill Montford, and representatives of affected counties, said during a press conference in Tallahassee.
They gathered under the auspices of the Rebuild 850 initiative to appeal for help from the Florida Legislature, the federal government, and private donors.
While acknowledging relief already received, the speakers insisted that more is needed – and sooner rather than later. Bense showed photos he took earlier this week of still-ravaged buildings, schools, and neighborhoods to remind Floridians that the crisis is nowhere near over.
The region desperately needs housing, said Kristy Terry, executive director of the North Florida Inland Long Term Recovery Group and a resident of Blountstown, one of the worst damaged of the region’s rural towns.
More than 60 percent of the housing stock was battered or destroyed in the hardest-hit areas, and damaged homes are deteriorating for lack of builders to repair or replace them. Without housing, residents are leaving, businesses that survived the storm are dying from the loss of employees, and recovery personnel can’t find shelter.
Schools and public safety services eventually could collapse, Fugate warned.
Meanwhile, thousands remain homeless. Donna Pilson, executive director of Rebuild Bay County, said 2,500 school-age children are still homeless just in Bay County and many more are traumatized. Fifty children there have been hospitalized under Florida’s Baker Act for emergency mental health treatment, she said.
Fugate predicted that negotiations between the state and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development over money and how it will be used will play a decisive role in the region’s recovery or collapse.
Montford, a Democrat from Tallahassee, said he and state Rep. Jay Trumbull, a Panama City Republican, will sponsor bills to ensure equal access to recovery money for smaller counties like those that Michael hit. Ron Sachs, CEO of Sachs Media Group in Tallahassee and cofounder of Rebuild 850, called it a “population-challenged region.”
Sachs shrugged off a question about whether the recent ouster of former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham as co-chair of Rebuild 850, after she criticized Gov. Ron DeSantis on Twitter, would overwhelm the group’s message. Montford would serve as defacto co-chairman in Graham’s place, he said.
Bense and Weatherford remain as co-chairs.