Trump Pledges More Hurricane Relief at Florida Rally

A message reading, “Help Us – Trump” was spray painted on the side of a building affected by the devastation of Hurricane Michael. (Alex Pickett/CNS)

(CN) – President Donald Trump visited the hurricane-ravaged Florida Panhandle on Wednesday, promising hundreds of millions in federal funds even as Congress stalls on a disaster aid package.

At a campaign-style rally attracting thousands to a park in Panama City Beach, Trump pledged $448 million in Housing and Urban Development funds and an increase in the federal cost share for hurricane recovery.

“We’ve already given you billions of dollars and there’s a lot more coming, as you knew it,” Trump told a cheering crowd wearing red “Make American Great Again” hats and waving signs.

“Today, I’m doing the most allowed by law to support the people of Florida,” he said. “Because of the severity of the storm … we will have the federal government pay for 90 percent of the cost in many circumstances.”

Although Trump has the presidential authority to increase the federal cost share for hurricane recovery from the standard 75 percent, Congress must still allocate the money. 

Local pressure on the federal government intensified in recent weeks as Panama City and surrounding Bay County enter the 210th day without federal disaster aid – the longest such wait in decades. 

President Donald Trump’s supporters showed up to the rally held in Panama City Beach on May 8, 2019. “You got hit with a little hurricane called Michael,” Trump quipped. “ That was not a nice hurricane, I can tell you that, but it’s going well.” (Alex Pickett/CNS)

Congressional negotiations over the $17 billion disaster relief package halted when Democrats demanded more funding for Puerto Rico, which was hit by two hurricanes in 2017.

“No games, no gimmicks, no delays,” Trump said to cheers. “You are getting your money, one way or another. The Democrats are trying to stop it, but you’re getting it.”

In a statement released after Trump’s remarks, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended Democrats’ position.

“Sadly, Senate Republicans have been more committed to hurting our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico than healing communities everywhere,” she said. “Meanwhile, the president has doubled down on Republicans’ callousness, deliberately delaying assistance payments to Puerto Rico and inflicting more needless suffering on the Americans who are still reeling from his administration’s disastrous response to the hurricanes.”

For the last seven months, recovery has languished in Panama City and Bay County. A drive down U.S. 98 through towns like Calloway, Parker and Mexico Beach reveals a region still reeling from Hurricane Michael’s disastrous effects.

Many residents still live in damaged homes, campers and even tents. As construction workers come to the area to rebuild, they compete with the displaced for the few motels and affordable housing not destroyed by the storm.

One out of every six students still lives in temporary housing, according to the Bay County School District.

The Florida Forest Service estimates 347,000 acres in Bay, Calhoun and Gulf counties were 95 percent destroyed. The downed timber presents another challenge for Florida officials – the danger of wildfire.

And another cloud hangs over the region: the start of the 2019 hurricane season on June 1.

Hurricane Michael also damaged many businesses in a region that did not have a lot of employment opportunities to begin with.

Tyndall Air Force Base, one of the area’s largest employers before the storm, still remains severely damaged. On May 1, construction work on the military base stopped due to a lack of federal funding.

Trump toured the base earlier in the day and promised at the rally to rebuild it, add more buildings and station the country’s fleet of F-35 fighter jets there.

While Trump did not bring any emergency funding for the region, he did delight the red hat-wearing crowd with attacks on Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and an immigrant “invasion” at the southern border.

This is Trump’s second trip since the storm to solidly conservative Bay County, where 70 percent of voters supported him in 2016. Still, residents regularly express frustration at the lack of progress in the region.

In a dilapidated trailer park near Tyndall Air Force Base, Larry Seaborn cut plywood in front of his home.

Larry Seaborn, a 68-year-old retiree, said, “What do I need? What don’t I need?” after Hurricane Michael tore through the trailer park he lives in. (Alex Pickett/CNS)

Hurricane Michael, which strengthened from a tropical depression to a Category 5 storm in 72 hours, caught Seaborn by surprise. The 68-year-old retiree rode out the storm a nearby Days Inn.

When he returned to his home, the trailer was mostly intact, but some of the other homes in the park were turned on their side. Until recently, people still lived out of them, he said.

When asked what he needed most, Seaborn looked over his property, strewn with debris, and replied, “What do I need? What don’t I need?”

Seaborn said he did not know Trump was touring the area nearby.

“Why are the politicians up there having their needs being met over the people’s needs being met,” he asked. “Especially when you have people like us that really need help.”

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