Leaders of a group formed after Hurricane Michael last year are trying to keep state and national attention focused on storm-ravaged parts of Northwest Florida, while also facing questions about the exit from the group of former Congresswoman Gwen Graham because of critical tweets aimed at Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Rebuild 850 leaders during a news conference Thursday pointed to a need for more affordable housing, building materials and volunteers as the region approaches the one-year anniversary of the Category 5 hurricane.
“This was a big story of the day for a brief period of time,” said Ron Sachs, CEO of Tallahassee-based Sachs Media Group who helped organize Rebuild 850. “Because it’s a population-challenged region, keeping the focus on the region was going to be the mission of this organization, more than money, more than volunteer time, more than investments.”
Hurricane Michael battered the region on Oct. 10, 2018, causing up to $17 billion in economic losses, with insured losses now at $6.9 billion. But it was quickly eclipsed in news cycles outside the Panhandle by last fall’s state elections. The concern is that the attention never returned.
“Don’t let us be forgotten,” Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who represents hard-hit areas and is expected to replace Graham as a co-chair of Rebuild 850. “That’s the fear we have right now is that we cannot let Florida forget this unique part of the state.”
Noting that people are still living in tents and homes covered by blue tarps, Rebuild 850 — named after the region’s telephone area code — encourages people, organizations and corporations to donate through Volunteer Florida toward the recovery effort.
Rebuild 850 Co-Chairman Allan Bense, a former Republican House Speaker from Panama City, said while 20,000 to 30,000 people have relocated outside the eight-county region directly impacted by the storm, the lack of affordable housing continues to hamper recovery efforts.
Volunteer Florida CEO Clay Ingram, a former Republican lawmaker from Pensacola, said approximately $7 million in donations have been received for the recovery, with about $510,000 directly attributed to the Rebuild 850 effort.
The group, however, has faced questions this week about Graham’s departure. In a series of tweets on Sept. 26, Graham labeled DeSantis a “mini” President Donald Trump and an “acolyte” of the president.
“Floridians, please pay attention, not to the spin, but to what the Governor is actually doing. Actions speak louder than words,” she tweeted in reference to a Tampa Bay Times report on the Cabinet’s approval of John MacIver, a Tallahassee lawyer who’s the head of the local Federalist Society, as chief judge of the state’s Division of Administrative Hearings.
Rebuild 850 leaders said Thursday they appreciated Graham’s work, but they don’t want her exit to be a distraction.
“This is not a partisan organization,” said Rebuild 850 Co-Chairman Will Weatherford, a former Republican House speaker from Wesley Chapel. “She has every right to feel the need to be partisan in her way. But that is not what we’re about. That, in and of itself, was a distraction. We’re focused on these efforts. She’s still welcomed to be a part of it. But she can’t be a face of it if she wants to be partisan.”
Graham, who ran for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination last year, announced her resignation from Rebuild 850 in a tweet Monday.
Sachs said he had discussed with Graham in August her use of Twitter and the intent of Rebuild 850 to be non-partisan.
“No one is trying to mute Gwen Graham or silence her, she’s entitled to her opinion,” Sachs said. “What she tweeted last week, in my view, crossed the line.”
In a series of tweets on Monday Graham called the conversation with Sachs difficult for both of them but that she wasn’t going to cut back on expressing her opinions.
“Yesterday, a friend called to tell me that because I have been tough on our new Governor — calling him out on Twitter and Facebook for policies I believe are harmful to Florida — I will no longer continue as co-chair of Rebuild 850,” Graham tweeted.
Graham said she would continue working for people in the region who are suffering.
“I will continue to do all I can to be a voice both in Florida and with my former colleagues in Congress, on behalf of those still living under tarps and in campers, suffering from depression and PTSD, waiting for insurance corporations to let them know the status of their claims,” Graham tweeted.