Part of the coastline along the Florida Panhandle devastated by Hurricane Michael more than three months ago is known as the Forgotten Coast. As the people there continue to rebuild their homes and lives, the name given to that quiet, relatively undeveloped section of the state’s coastline has taken on a new meaning.
People there are starting to feel that they have been forgotten.
That was a concern expressed by Gov. Rick DeSantis earlier this month the day before his inauguration.
“Those people in northwest Florida are working their tail off. They’ve done a great job, but they need help,” DeSantis said. “I don’t want them to be forgotten and so we’re going to make sure they see me there and let them know it’s something that means a lot to me.”
DeSantis has made three trips to that part of the state in his first three weeks on the job.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried visited the area Monday, accompanied by local legislators and state Forestry Director Jim Karels, to provide an update on recovery efforts involving her department. She visited with farmers in the Mariana area and inspected their damaged farms.
“The damage these communities has been dealt is unprecedented. They are resilient, but need our help to recover – and I’m committed to seeing that we get them that help,” said Fried. “We need a coordinated response .. there’s no time to waste. We don’t want our producers and farmers to have a lost season. We can’t afford for that to happen.”
In addition to the obvious losses to that area’s tourism industry, another key industry — timber — sustained heavy losses by Michael’s strong Category 4 winds. The storm downed pine trees along a 20-mile wide path stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Georgia border causing about $1.3 billion in damage.
State forestry officials estimate that 75 to 95 percent of the pine trees in that area were damaged or destroyed leaving bout 1.5 million acres with severe or catastrophic tree loss.
That could pose a new threat to the area if those trees aren’t cleared and allowed to dry out — an increased risk of wildfires.
Fried stressed the need for immediate action and funding to clear up to 72 million tons of downed trees. Her department is asking the state for $20 million to help property owners remove the debris from their lands.
Despite the efforts of the governor, Commissioner Fried, and others to let residents know they are not alone, there are signs that the impacted area is being forgotten.
An analysis of prominent charitable organizations conducted by the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald published Sunday shows contributions lagging behind fundraising efforts to help victims of other disasters.
The Salvation Army has received $2.8 million for its Hurricane Michael response. It received a combined $125million after Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017.
United Way Worldwide received just under $750,000 for Hurricane Michael recovery. That’s more than $10 million less than it received for its combined fund for Hurricanes Irma and Maria. That’s about $100,000 less than it received for the 2017 Mexican earthquake.
Former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense is from the Panama City which heavily impacted by the storm. Bense co-chairs a group called Rebuild 850 that was created after the storm to assist in with the recovery. The 850 refers to the area code for that part of the state.
“The harsh reality is that there are tens of thousands of families in Northwest Florida still struggling with the daily challenges of normal life after Hurricane Michael,” Bense said Monday. “Even in this New Year, we need Floridians to open up their hearts and their wallets to support our neighbors in the Panhandle.”
DeSantis has made it clear the state would not abandon the people who were in the path of Hurricane Michael. Last week, he announced that President Donald Trump was extending the period of time for which the federal government would pick up the full cost of debris removal from five to 45 days. A move that is expected to save state and local governments hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs.
The state is expected to designate millions of additional dollars to hurricane recovery when the Legislature meets beginning in March. There’s even talk the state might use some of the $2 billion it will get over the next 12 years from the BP oil spill settlement stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster to help with the hurricane recovery.
But, for those residents who found their lives in the path of Hurricane Michael, they need help now.
“There is so much work being done in this area, but there is still a long road ahead and we need help,” Bense said.