Effort Will Keep Florida Panhandle Needs “Front and Center” and Encourage People to Donate, Volunteer, Visit, and Invest
Former Florida House Speakers Allan Bense and Will Weatherford, joined by a diverse group of dedicated partner organizations, today launched REBUILD 850, a new initiative to keep the continuing needs of communities in Florida’s Panhandle “front and center” following Hurricane Michael. The group issued a challenge for individuals, businesses, and organizations to donate, volunteer, visit, and invest to help the region, with Bense kicking off the effort by contributing $25,000 to the new initiative.
The continuing awareness campaign unites the resources and efforts of Volunteer Florida, the Florida Chamber, the Florida Chamber Foundation, the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Association of Counties, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, United Way of Florida, the American Red Cross, Get Ready, Florida! & FAIR Foundation, and the Florida Press Association. REBUILD 850’s dual objectives are to help residents of areas devastated by the power of Michael while promoting commerce in communities – ranging from Panama City Beach to Pensacola – that escaped the worst of the storm’s wrath and remain open for business. All funds will flow through the nonprofit Volunteer Florida Foundation.
“It’s natural after a disaster for immediate help and donations to flow and then ebb, as other news dominates the headlines,” Bense said. “But North Florida’s recovery will go on for months and even years, and we must keep the focus on helping so many communities through their ongoing needs.”
Weatherford expressed particular concern for poorer residents of the region, especially those living in rural and remote parts of the Panhandle.
“Once you see how people in these communities have been forced to live and how they are struggling, you can’t help but be moved,” Weatherford said. “We need to continue to tell their stories and keep long-term North Florida recovery in the public eye.”
REBUILD 850 aims to attract and engage the focused, ongoing support of businesses, charitable organizations, leaders, media, and millions of Floridians.
Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber, said Florida’s business community is committed to helping the area rebuild and re-establishing the region’s economic base.
“It’s clear that there are at least three types of needs in the affected communities: basic needs like food, shelter, and individual safety; promoting the region as open for business in parts that are open; and signaling to outside investors that the 850 region is actually full of outstanding investment potential,” Wilson said. “We’re all on the same page, and we’re in this until there’s not a need left.”
“Residents of the affected areas have been blessed with the support of so many volunteers, but their struggles will remain long after this first wave of help subsides,” said David Mica, Jr., CEO of Volunteer Florida. “By partnering with REBUILD 850, we will work to make sure North Florida residents continue to receive the help they need throughout the difficult months to come.”
Jay Neal, president and CEO of FAIR Foundation added “we are proud to join this important initiative to focus intense and ongoing attention on the needs of the many communities in our Panhandle region that are so severely damaged by Hurricane Michael. As part of our commitment to the project, our 30-minute television program — ‘Get Ready, Florida!’ — will include meaningful attention on the affected region and will be broadcast statewide in several weeks.”
Bense, a native of Panama City, which was devastated by Hurricane Michael, agreed that significant, new investment is needed in the region.
“In many of these communities, local businesses were absolutely obliterated and countless jobs were lost,” he said. “There is a tremendous need for people with a vision for what these communities can be to invest in property, open businesses, and help lead a rebirth for places from Panama City and Mexico Beach to Marianna and Chipley.”
Weatherford, who was the youngest person ever to serve as a presiding officer anywhere in the country when he became Florida Speaker in 2012, also called on political candidates to donate their leftover campaign funds to Panhandle recovery.
“The people of this area need our help, and our state and nation must join together to provide this desperately needed relief for our neighbors,” Weatherford said. “Every election season, many candidates still have money in the bank after Election Day. This year, we urge all candidates throughout Florida to ask their contributors to support this effort by allowing their campaign contributions to be directed to rebuilding the Panhandle.”
Donations to REBUILD 850 will be administered by Volunteer Florida’s Florida Disaster Fund. The Florida Disaster Fund is the state’s private fund established to assist communities following disasters. The funds are distributed to service organizations that will serve affected individuals throughout both disaster response and long-term recovery. During response, these organizations and volunteers assist with tree removal and debris cleanup, tarp installation, mucking out and gutting of homes, and food distribution. Long-term recovery includes rebuilding homes, businesses, and communities while offering financial guidance and planning services.