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Allan Bense, Will Weatherford, Gwen Graham and Ron Sachs: Hurricane Michael victims need ongoing priority attention from state, federal governments — and all of us

Too much is on the line. For this special part of paradise, the very future is at stake.

“The crisis continues today. This recovery will take decades.”

With those nine words, Sen. Bill Montford summed up where things stand for Florida’s Panhandle communities devastated by Hurricane Michael. Six months later, the crisis after the crisis is the extent of damage and its lingering, profound impact.

Much has been done to start helping those communities recover — with debris removal and efforts to restore infrastructure as the most significant accomplishments — and still it staggers anyone about how much remains to be done. The work will go on, potentially for generations.

We all want the region to rise to its feet again, but it will never be the same. The lives of its residents and its communities have been altered forever. The future is shaky. What we all do now will directly impact the future for the Michael region, for better or worse.

Hurricane Michael was the worst storm ever to strike Florida’s Panhandle, and the damage and fallout is historic. Property values were among the lowest in the state, but insurance claims have already surpassed $6 billion. Estimates suggest the final cost could be double.

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The area’s needs are deep and diverse, with tens of thousands of lives disrupted – and housing, jobs, infrastructure, health care, education and more complicating the myriad challenges facing those residents. Many families were already challenged in their daily economic lives before the storm — and now, many are living in poverty and homelessness.

The governmental relief process is agonizingly slower than this reality requires. State and federal authorities must make it an overarching priority to remember what is often called Florida’s “Forgotten Coast.” All our dedicated elected advocates need to continue to plead for ongoing and massive help.

Help from Washington after other storms came much bigger and sooner: $60 billion after Hurricane Sandy, $87 billion after Harvey, $100 billion after Katrina. To our region after Michael? So far, less than $2 billion. And though private donations have been helpful and appreciated, they are painfully insufficient when measured against the need.

Rebuild 850 was created to keep the focus of Florida and the nation on the needs of this non-urban area, one that already was so economically challenged. The focus continues to be on asking individuals, families and businesses to channel their concern and compassion into meaningful action.

This action can take the form to donate whatever they can afford; to volunteer their time and energies; to visit the parts of the region ready to host them, to keep tourism dollars flowing; and finally, to explore opportunities created by the crisis to invest in the region, to do good – and possibly to also do well – by creating new economic engines that will advance the region into the future.

The Rebuild 850 website provides convenient ways to explore all these options, at Rebuild850.org.

This week, Rebuild 850 will bring a delegation of top Florida business leaders to tour the region. The two-day visit is being conducted under the leadership of the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation, with support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Corporate Citizenship Center. Its focus will be on recovery needs, regional assets and economic fundamentals.

The tour will begin at two of the most devastated places: Mexico Beach and Tyndall Air Force Base. The magnitude of the destruction, paired with bold determination to rebuild, will bring shared focus to the severe ongoing needs. Participants will also see the need in Panama City, Marianna and Blountstown. And they’ll hear directly from Congressman Neal Dunn, CFO Jimmy Patronis, Volunteer Florida CEO Clay Ingram, Tyndall Commander Col. Brian S. Laidlaw, and others – all of whom call the area home and feel its pain personally.

This will keep the priority aim where it needs to be: on helping friends and neighbors through this unimaginable tragedy. We must not, we cannot, we will not forget about them.

Too much is on the line. For this special part of paradise, the very future is at stake. For the near-term path, just survival is the daily goal for so many people.

So please, let us all feel motivated by these harsh realities to open our hearts, wallets and efforts to keep helping our neighbors reclaim their lives and their communities. Anything less would be a man-made crisis.

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Former Florida House Speakers Allan Bense and Will Weatherford and former Congresswoman Gwen Graham are the co-chairs of Rebuild 850. Ron Sachs is state director of the initiative and Sachs Media Group is the project’s coordinating agency.

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