“Today the president acknowledged he was going to fulfill his promise to these disaster victims and have their backs, and I think today, in a bipartisan way, Congress backed him up on that,” said U.S. Senator David Perdue (R-GA), in announcing the long-delayed Senate vote on a $19.1 billion disaster recovery bill which passed 85-8 on May 23, 2019.
Hurricane Michael crashed ashore in Mexico Beach, Florida on October 10, 2018, with winds estimated at 160 miles per hour. Michael is one of only four known Category 5 hurricanes to make U.S. landfall. Within hours the charming vacation, retirement, and beachfront residential community was all but obliterated. That was seven months ago, and with thousands of residents having left their homes and business behind, there are still families, seniors and longtime area residents living in tents, houses without fully functioning utilities or tarped roofs and businesses unable to return to their prior locations.
And Michael was not finished on the coast, in addition to causing 74 deaths (59 in the United States), Michael caused an estimated $25.1 billion in infrastructure and property damage. As Michael moved inland, it laid down hundreds of miles of crops in the field, wiping out key cash crops in Florida, southwest Alabama and south Georgia, before farmers could harvest. Agricultural losses approach $4 billion. As another summer approaches, and vacationers return to Panama City Beach, Pensacola, Seaside and many popular destinations along U.S. 98 and the Florida Panhandle, normalcy appears to have returned. But not for Mexico Beach, other nearby beach communities, nor inland family farmers across three states.
The farm planting season is not endless, planting cash crops in June is well outside the normal window. But for thousands of family farms who also suffered the loss of their homes, barns and farming equipment, there was also no collateral to make crop loans against. Local and community banks with heavy farm loan portfolios have been flexible and patient, but foreclosures are likely to begin soon for many farms in families for generations, which had no yield income last year from their crops destroyed in the fields.
President Donald Trump was quick to visit the disaster scene, promise significant aid and the U.S. House moved unusually swiftly passing two separate aid packages of $17 and $19-billion to assist the region in re-building.
Yet somehow, as is increasingly the case on Capitol Hill, partisan divides over additional aid for Puerto Rico (which President Trump opposes), and additional funding for the Mexico border wall (which the White House strongly supports), became intertwined with the disaster relief for the Florida panhandle and farmers. Thankfully due to the persistence of several farm state senators, including Georgia Senators David Perdue and Johnny Isakson, a deal was finally reached and passed the Senate on Thursday, May 23, the House is expected to pass soon as well, though members have already left Washington for the Memorial Day recess, and President Trump has promised his signature despite the absence of any border security funding in the $19.1-billion spending package.
The relief package includes $3-billion in emergency aid for farmers in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Additional aid is included for peach and blueberry farmers who were crippled earlier by a late season freeze as well as tornadoes in 2017. The aid package has billions more for restoring highways, wastewater infrastructure and military bases, such as Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City and an additional $900 million in recovery assistance for Puerto Rico, still reeling from Hurricane Maria in 2017. The latter was a key priority for Democrats throughout negotiations.
Natural disasters are not partisan and they should not be politicized. Just as Americans rush to donate blood, send cases of bottled water, diapers and other packaged goods, our U.S. government should be able to maintain a clear lane and unfettered path to assist those most in need.
And just a few more weeks, before these funds actually make local landfall, may mean the difference between bankruptcy and homelessness for thousands in three states, for devastating losses and injury through no fault of their own.
Our people and nation deserve better, from both sides of the aisle. The blame game and finger-pointing will of course follow, but it’s beginning to get tedious. Part of making America great again is responding to natural disaster and caring for our injured and those in harm’s way. We have done this well for decades, let’s put that priority back in place.
Bill Crane is a senior communications strategist who began his career in broadcasting and has worked at the state capitol and in Washington in both political parties. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.