Monday, April 08, 2019

Six months after Hurricane Michael, rural Florida panhandle still struggles to recover; some federal relief still delayed

Some rural Florida panhandle residents still live in temporary housing. (Washington Post photo by Charlotte Kesl)
Six months after Hurricane Michael killed 49 people and caused more than $5.5 billion in damage in the Florida panhandle, rural areas east of Panama City are still struggling to rebuild, Patricia Sullivan and Joel Achenbach report for The Washington Post.

"Government agencies have cleared the roads and utilities have restored power, water and communications, but thousands of people are still desperate for permanent housing, competing not only with one another for the scarce supply of rental units, but with construction workers who have come into the area," Sullivan and Achenbach report. "Many residents are living in damaged homes or trailers unfit for human habitation. Some live in tents. Homeowners are frustrated by stingy insurance companies and bewildering government paperwork, and they’re wary of shady contractors."

The area has received less in charitable donations than other areas hit with recent hurricanes, the Post reports: The American Red Cross said that donations earmarked for Michael were at $35 million, compared to $64.3 million for Hurricane Florence, which hit Virginia and the Carolinas a month before; $97 million for Hurricane Irma, which hit Naples, Florida in 2018; and $522.7 million for Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas in 2017. That's likely because Michael affected relatively few people and the public was paying more attention to victims of Florence and wildfires in Northern California.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency "said it has poured $1.1 billion into Florida in Michael-related response and recovery efforts, the bulk of that in the form of low-interest Small Business Administration loans," Sullivan and Achenbach report. "It has approved $141 million in individual assistance to 31,000 households affected by Michael, numbers similar to disaster relief provided to North Carolina after Florence."

But Congress has not passed a $13.5 billion bill to fund long-term recovery from natural disasters, at first because of the partial federal shutdown, then because of partisan fighting over hurricane recovery funding for Puerto Rico. Congress authorized $35 billion in long-term recovery aid more than a year ago, but the Housing and Urban Development Department program that disburses the aid is so dysfunctional that almost none of the funding has been given out.

Rural panhandle residents are frustrated with Congressional delays. Philip Griffitts, chairman of the Bay County Commission and a Republican, told the Post: "We have as many Democrats suffering as Republicans, and we need help. We’re all in the same boat."

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