A high-profile, bipartisan coalition is re-upping a plea to the public to chip in to relief efforts for the storm-battered Panhandle.
The effort, dubbed REBUILD 850, has funneled $400,000 to the Florida Disaster Fund. But monetary needs remain for those affected by Hurricane Michael, the nearly Category 5 cyclone that made landfall exactly three months ago.
“We really are hurt in our world,” said former House Speaker Allan Bense who launched the initiative last November alongside Will Weatherford, another former Republican House Speaker.
Bense, speaking at a Thursday conference hosted by Sachs Media Group in Tallahassee, showed coalition members a picture of an overturned trailer. He said the photo, taken just days ago, symbolizes the conditions of the Panhandle and Big Bend counties hit hardest by the storm.
“This is four blocks from my house that I used to live in,” Bense said of the picture. “This is three months later and this is what you still see everywhere you go.”
Hurricane Michael is shaping up to be costlier than Hurricane Irma, which hit the state in 2017. State leaders have noted storm relief will constrain Florida’s budget.
REBUILD 850 wants to pick up the slack on the private side of things.
Members are looking to add to relief efforts not funded by state dollars. The influential group is imploring companies, nonprofits, associations and more to aid the affected communities.
The latest success: A $250,000 check from Bank of America Thursday.
“Our company is committed to helping Northwest Florida recover,” said David Hulse, Tallahassee market president of Bank of America, in a prepared statement. “Following a disaster like this, we all need to join together and support one another.”
Volunteer Florida, which administers the Florida Disaster Fund, has connected 10,000 volunteers with the region. They’ve logged 707,000 on the ground helping with things like “tarping, roofing, sheltering, feeding and debris removal,” according to David Mica Jr., CEO of Volunteer Florida.
Bryan Koon, a former emergency chief for the state, is the most recent addition to REBUILD 850. He’s parlaying his experience as a former Director of the Division of Emergency Management to help assess damage.
Koon said he’s “never seen anything like” the devastation in the Big Bend and Panhandle regions. To get back to “normal,” the communities will need Floridians to come together as a community.
“Government funding helps greatly,” Koon said. “But it is only part of the overall solution; it’s up to the people of Florida to pitch in by donating to REBUILD 850 or by supporting businesses and organizations in the region.”
Emblemizing the unity needed for Michael-related relief is Democrat Gwen Graham, who had sought a nomination for Governor in 2018 and represented much of the affected area during a brief stint in Congress.
Flanked by the Republican Bense during the conference, Graham warned of relief apathy.
“There’s a very real risk — three months from the storm — that too many Floridians will move on to the next subject that catches their attention,” Graham said. “It’s natural after a disaster for immediate donations to flow and then ebb as other news takes over the headlines.”