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In waning hours of Session, Panhandle lawmakers plead for federal hurricane relief

‘They understand it’s Congress who has dropped the ball.’

A trio of state Senators from Panhandle areas that had been smashed last October by Hurricane Michael took to the Senate floor Friday to say that people there still are suffering and to plead for Washington to send more help.

Republican state Sens. George Gainer of Panama City and Doug Broxson of Gulf Breeze and Democratic state Sen. Bill Montford of Tallahassee took turns, near the end of their last full day of the 2019 Legislative Session, to remind everyone that the Category 5 hurricane‘s destruction was like nothing seen in decades; that the areas from Bay County outward to the Georgia state line still are in terrible trouble; and that they need more federal aid, now.

Their comments came while they also rose to express appreciation to the Senate and Florida House of Representatives for including Hurricane Michael disaster relief money in the proposed 2020 budget, bringing the state’s commitment so far to $1.86 billion in relief.

But they also decried the lack of help coming from Washington D.C. for a storm that did an estimated $20 billion in damage to eight relatively rural counties.

And Broxson warned that things not only remain bad, they could get worse.

“These two gentlemen,” Broxson said, referring to Gainer and Montford, “are in a world of trouble. They’ve got to go back tomorrow to the people in their districts and explain to them why they’re still hurting, why they have no jobs, why they can’t get from one place to another because the roads are out. And I think we’ve done what the Legislature was willing to do. But it hasn’t been enough. And my plea today is to our federal partners… we need to help our people in the Panhandle get back on their feet.”

“They understand the situation,” offered Montford said of his constituents. “They understand who’s not doing their job. They understand it’s Congress who has dropped the ball.”

“I think we came in strong here. I don’t think anybody can find any fault with the Florida Senate for what we did to try to make this catastrophe, the worst that Florida has ever seen, as small as possible,” Gainer said. “The people of Northwest Florida thank you for everything you’ve done.”

Much of Florida’s congressional delegation has been pushing in Washington for money. Earlier this week both Republican U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott made impassioned pleas on behalf of the Panhandle. Many of Florida’s members of the U.S. House of Representatives have done likewise. And last week Rubio urged FEMA to increase the federal match for Florida’s disaster relief to be increased to 90 percent from 75 percent.

But most of the pleas have essentially been partisan in tone, blaming the other party for inaction. Meanwhile, the Democrat-controlled  U.S. House has refused to pass the Senate’s proposals, and the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate has refused to pass the House’s bills.

The bipartisan trio of state Senators made their pleas in what is essentially their last moment to do so in the 2019 Legislative Session, which concludes tomorrow with a brief session to vote on the budget. Coincidentally, their pleas also come three days before President Donald Trump is set to hold a campaign rally Monday night in Panama City near ground zero for Hurricane Michael’s impact.

Broxson, whose far-western Panhandle district was the least affected by Hurricane Michael, went where Gainer and Montford would not, in criticizing the federal government and Congress. He noted the federal government quickly provided $100 billion after Hurricane Katrina hit Mississippi and Louisiana in 2005, and $87 billion after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in 2017. Broxson also expressed empathy for areas of California burned by 2018’s record wildfires.

“It is depressing. It’s depressing that 200 days after the storm, that we have a federal government gridlock, that cannot agree to help both the people of California and the people of Florida with the worst devastation that either state has ever seen, because they [federal officials] are involved in a battle on issues that are unrelated to the hurting people of our area,” Broxson said.

“There’s no way I can explain it. States have always depended on the federal government to immediately step in and do what they can only do because they have the resources to do it,” he continued.

Florida’s storm response has mostly come from a draw-down on the state’s “rainy-day” fund. Senate Appropriations Chair Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, assured his colleagues there still is $3.4 billion in that budget reserve.

Broxson warned that the loss of businesses and population has put Panhandle counties and cities in precarious economic circumstances and that some may face bankruptcy.

“We appreciate the state of Florida doing what they’ve done. But we’ve got to have more help,” Broxson concluded. “Otherwise we will be back here next year telling a much different story about depopulation in those areas and the crisis that it has created for the Panhandle.”

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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