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Ron DeSantis’ first worry: Hurricanes could bust state budget

Addressing costly hurricane damage from years past could be one of Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis’ first headaches after he takes office next week.

Kevin Guthrie, chief of staff at the state Division of Emergency Management, on Thursday painted a pricey picture to a panel charged with advising DeSantis and Lt. Gov-elect Jeanette Nuñez on government operations.

Guthrie said he anticipates DEM will submit a budget request this year that will reflect Hurricane Irma’s continued impact on the emergency management agency. In the following year, the effects of Hurricane Michael will drive up the annual request.

Hurricane Irma, which made landfall in 2017, is expected to be a $3.5 billion storm, Guthrie said. Michael, the nearly-Category 5 cyclone that swept through the Panhandle and Big Bend regions in October 2018, could exceed $4.25 billion.

“My gut tells me it will probably be closer to $5 [billion] or more,” Guthrie told the panel.

Guthrie said the state already has paid out more than $1 billion for expenditures like funding emergency officials and temporary shelters in the wake of Michael. That’s without factoring in the costs related to timber and debris cleanup, which Guthrie said other agencies have pegged at $1.5 billion and $1.4 billion, respectively.

Guthrie told the panel that incoming DEM Director Jared Moskowitz is particularly concerned with temporary housing in the Panhandle.

Moskowitz, a Democratic state legislator tapped for the job by DeSantis, agreed.

“One of things we want to look at immediately is the current housing situation in the Panhandle,” Moskowitz told Florida Politics.

Moskowitz said he’s “concerned” that some who were displaced by Michael are not receiving adequate shelter. He said he’ll “meet with stakeholders to see where that currently stands.”

While Michael was acute in nature — especially when compared to Irma — Moskowitz said the storm drove up costs because of its intensity and path through populated areas.

Guthrie, during his presentation to the panel, also discussed some of the internal problems facing DEM. Because its budget is made up almost entirely of trust fund or grant money, it’s difficult for DEM to make improvements to areas like disaster resiliency and emergency response.

“Many of those things we have not been able to do because of the fact that we do not have those funds in general-fund form for the Division,” Guthrie said.

Complicating matters are the “ever-changing” rules of FEMA, Guthrie said. Federal changes, which he suggested are frequent, cause delays.

And it’s becoming difficult for DEM to retain personnel. Guthrie said an entry-level DEM worker might make $35,000 annually, while those doing the same job in the private sector make $85,000.

“We end up having to invest money again on hiring individuals,” Guthrie said.

The government operations panel will not meet again before DeSantis takes office.

Written By

Danny McAuliffe is a Tallahassee correspondent for Florida Politics. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as the editor of the FSView & Florida Flambeau. He is a lifelong Floridian and indulges in swimming, hiking, running and memes when the news cycle permits. Reach him at dmcauliffe500@gmail.com.

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