Three months after landfall, residents still struggling with urgent recovery needs
Three months from the day Hurricane Michael devastated vast areas of Northwest Florida, REBUILD 850 co-chairs Allan Bense, Will Weatherford, and Gwen Graham today emphasized the importance for all Floridians to continue efforts to assist recovery in the hard-hit area. They announced the addition of former Florida Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon as director of damage assessment, highlighting the urgency of the mission, for the all-volunteer initiative.
Hurricane Michael was the strongest storm to ever hit the Florida Panhandle, and areas that bore the brunt of the storm are still reeling from the utter destruction. Each day, residents, businesses, and neighborhoods face darkened streets because of thousands of street lights still without power, debris still lining roads, and ongoing delays for approved direct housing assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). While more than $467 million in federal funds have been distributed to residents in Bay County alone, continued assistance and national attention is still essential for a successful recovery from such a disastrous event.
“I’ve seen many regions struggle to get back to ‘normal’ after a major storm, but the devastated communities of Northwest Florida have never seen anything like this,” said Koon, who led the state’s disaster recovery efforts for more than six years through such major events as Hurricanes Hermine, Matthew, and Irma. “The only way these communities – our neighbors – will recover is through the continued generous support of Floridians everywhere. That’s what makes REBUILD 850 so vitally important.”
REBUILD 850 seeks to continue to attract and engage the focused, ongoing support of businesses, charitable organizations, leaders, media, and Floridians. The initiative seeks to help residents of areas devastated by the power of Michael while promoting commerce in nearby communities that escaped the worst of the storm’s wrath and remain open for business. So far, the initiative has directly raised nearly $400,000 to the Florida Disaster Fund through the nonprofit Volunteer Florida Foundation.
Bense, a resident of Panama City who served as House Speaker in 2004-2006, noted the significant amount of funds raised by the initiative so far but said the community faces so much more need.
“We knew recovery would take time, but public assistance is needed now more than ever – and there are many ways Floridians can help beyond donating money and volunteer hours,” said Bense. “This region needs visitors and investors to support the local economy, so our people can get back to work and earn the paycheck that will get them through this terrible time.”
Bense, Weatherford, and Graham noted that Florida’s new Governor Ron DeSantis highlighted the need for all of Florida to continue helping the region. In his inaugural address, the Governor said Hurricane Michael “did not destroy the resilience and resolve of the people of Northwest Florida. To the communities impacted, we will stand with you to rebuild your communities stronger than before.”
With the start of the state’s legislative session just two months away, leaders have already begun discussing ways to assist with recovery. Weatherford, who served as House Speaker in 2012-2014, said support in the Capitol is essential, and urged lawmakers to visit the region if they haven’t already.
“We are grateful for the assurance from our state’s leaders that the recovery of this region will remain a priority,” said Weatherford. “Words fail us in describing the extent of devastation this area has suffered. I hope every elected official making decisions on support for the region will consider traveling to the areas most impacted to see why their help is so critical.”
REBUILD 850 co-chairs met with FEMA officials to discuss how the initiative and the federal agency can best work together to assist with recovery. Graham, who represented many of the affected counties in Congress, has been assisting with numerous volunteer efforts in the region and pointed to the importance of nonprofit assistance for full recovery
“It’s the simple things like going to school, getting a toy at Christmas, and having a roof over your head that so many people take for granted, but these present real challenges for people in Northwest Florida,” said Graham. “Our nation and state must come together and help our neighbors, who continue to need so very much.”
To further promote REBUILD 850’s activities, Get Ready, Florida! and the FAIR Foundation produced a 30-minute TV special titled “Get Ready, Florida!: Prepare. Recover. Rebuild.” The program, which will run in all 10 major media markets across the state, includes emotional testimonies, devastating footage of Hurricane Michael’s aftermath, and a compelling call to action to help REBUILD 850 gain continued assistance.
“With hurricane experts calling these types of superstorms the ‘new normal,’ it’s so important to rebuild the Panhandle with the next natural disaster in mind,” said Paul Handerhan, senior vice president of public policy for the FAIR Foundation. “The affected communities of Northwest Florida can be built stronger and more resilient — but only with our help.”
Executives with Bank of America presented a check for $250,000 to assist with ongoing needs in the area. These funds will benefit the continued recovery of the area.
“Our company is committed to helping Northwest Florida recover,” said David Hulse, Tallahassee market president of Bank of America. “Following a disaster like this, we all need to join together and support one another. As part of the community, we’re proud to support such a meaningful initiative to help drive awareness and increase support for the areas that have been devastated by the storm.”