Trump Campaigns In Florida While Hurricane Victims Wait For Disaster Aid

May 8, 2019
Originally published on May 8, 2019 2:18 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Seven months after Hurricane Michael, communities on the Florida Panhandle are still awaiting federal disaster aid. Some are pointing that out, just as President Trump prepares for today's campaign rally in Panama City Beach. Here's NPR's Greg Allen.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Al Cathey has a tough job. He's the mayor of Mexico Beach, a town that was all but wiped out by Hurricane Michael. He's meeting with Trump today before the campaign event. Cathey says it will be his second time with the president.

AL CATHEY: Five days after the storm, I met him, and he said, hey, you're going to get plenty of help. And I said, well, great because we are in a bad way, and I told him not to forget us. And I feel like that we have been forgotten.

ALLEN: Eighty percent of Mexico Beach's buildings were destroyed by Hurricane Michael. Few residents have been able to return, and Cathey says the town doesn't have the money to rebuild.

CATHEY: Our infrastructure was totally destroyed. We have no pier. Our police department's gone. Our fire department's gone. Our water tank was knocked down. Remember, we had an annual budget of $3 1/2 million; our debris pickup alone will exceed $60 million.

ALLEN: Although FEMA responded quickly with emergency assistance, Mexico Beach, Panama City and other communities now have big bills piling up, and they're looking to Congress for help. But for months now, a disaster relief bill has been stalled in Congress, largely because of a dispute over Puerto Rico. The bill contains $600 million in additional aid for Puerto Rico. Democrats want more money, but President Trump has resisted, resulting in a deadlock. It's frustrating for members of Congress, like Florida Republican Senator Rick Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICK SCOTT: Within 10 days of Katrina, Congress passed supplemental disaster relief funding. For Hurricane Ike and Hurricane Gustav, it took 17 days. Andrew, the last Category 5 storm to hit the States - 34 days.

ALLEN: More than 200 days have passed now since Hurricane Michael, and people in the Panhandle are getting anxious about the slow pace of recovery. In Panama City, they're still picking up debris, an expense that's expected to total some $200 million. Mayor Greg Brudnicki says the city's had to take out $75 million in loans.

GREG BRUDNICKI: The supplemental let us - No. 1 - pay the remaining expenses that we've got for debris pickup, plus help pay down on the loan that we've made.

ALLEN: Officials estimate at least a quarter of the population has left. For those that remain, there's a severe housing shortage. With severe daily challenges, Brudnicki says the impasse in Washington has left many in Panama City angry.

BRUDNICKI: We're kind of being held hostage, in my estimation and also a lot of the public's estimation, because I understand Puerto Rico has issues, and I know and understand Puerto Rico needs more money to fix their electrical grid. They've been given between $28 and $29 billion so far; we haven't been given anything.

ALLEN: How much aid Puerto Rico has received is a matter of debate. President Trump has tweeted, incorrectly, that the U.S. territory has gotten $91 billion. An analysis by San Juan daily El Nuevo Dia put it at about half that. While the finger-pointing goes on, the future of a major military installation, Tyndall Air Force Base, is on hold. Tyndall was badly damaged in Hurricane Michael. The Air Force is committed to a total rebuild, at a cost of some $3 billion. But money needed for the base is part of the disaster relief bill. With the bill stalled, the Air Force has halted all new rebuilding projects there. And that worries Bay County Commissioner Philip Griffitts.

PHILIP GRIFFITTS: If you stop construction now, and we have to wait four, five, six months for Congress to get their act together, will they really fund that base in four or five, six months, or could it be mothballed? That's the last thing that this community needs or wants.

ALLEN: For Bay County, the stakes are high. Tyndall Air Force Base is the area's largest employer and accounts for a third of the area's economy.

Greg Allen, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOSE WHO RIDE WITH GIANTS' "THE GUARDIANS OF THE DEEPNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.