U.S. Ag Secretary meets with Gov. DeSantis, promises Hurricane Michael aid will come swiftly

Florida National Guard team clears fallen timber, Oct. 13, 2018

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue promised Friday to speed federal Hurricane Michael disaster assistance to Florida, now that President Trump has signed a $19 billion supplemental budget bill eight months after the storm made landfall.

Speaking during a roundtable discussion hosted by Gov. Ron DeSantis at Florida’s governor’s mansion, Perdue promised to send federal “jump teams” to help state officials distribute the money. “It took longer that we’d like, but it’s here,” Perdue said.

“A lot of work to do, but I think we’re in a much better position where we stand today than we were six months ago,” DeSantis said.

The legislation – long stalled amid a dispute about Hurricane Maria recovery aid to Puerto Rico – includes $480 million to help the Panhandle’s timber growers recover from losses estimated at $1.3 billion, DeSantis said. Trump signed the bill Thursday.

“That’s a big deal. There’s a lot of debris removal costs. Of course, we’ve had wildfire risks due to the amount of trees that have been downed,” the governor said.

Florida Republican U.S. Reps. Greg Steube and Francis Rooney were among 58 Republicans who voted “no” because they thought it was too much money. The bill will help disaster-ravaged areas around the country.

Much of the money will pass through a block grant program modeled on federal assistance to citrus growers hurt by Hurricane Irma in 2017, Perdue said.

“We want to do this as expeditiously as possible,” he said. “It’s already been eight months. We were sadly delayed for that period of time. We absolutely want to get on it quickly.”

Participants in the discussion included state disaster recovery officials and state legislators from the Panhandle, plus U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, a Republican from the Gainesville area, and Florida’s commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, Democrat Nikki Fried.

The timber recovery effort will be complicated because a federal program that helps farmers recover from disaster traditionally hasn’t covered tree farms, Perdue said. Still, he added, the citrus recovery program “will give us a baseline to move quickly here. We’ve already had meetings really in anticipation of the passage of this bill and signing it. We’re pretty far down the line.”

The $91.1 billion state budget approved by the Legislature contains $1.8 million for Hurricane Michael recovery, Senate budget chairman Rob Bradley, an Orange Park Republican, said. The state has been spending on recovery efforts in anticipation of federal assistance.

State Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat whose district was heavily damaged, said constituents began calling as soon as word passed that Congress had approved the money, asking: “OK, it’s passed, where’s the money? When can we get our hands on it to replant?”

He stressed: ”It’s important that we keep this on the front burner and do it as quickly as we can.”

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