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Florida takes another election-eve hurricane hit. Trump's response will be key

By David Smiley and Alex Daugherty, Miami Herald on

Published in Political News

On the eve of the 2018 elections, President Donald Trump took the stage at a Pensacola rally and marveled at the damage wrought to Florida's Forgotten Coast only weeks earlier by Category 5 Hurricane Michael.

"That wasn't a hurricane. That was like a 50-mile wide tornado," Trump said, noting how the storm had wiped homes in coastal towns clean off their foundations. "Nobody's ever seen anything like that. But you are great people and we are with you 1,000%."

Two years later - as protracted Michael recovery efforts continue in a deep red region of the president's home state - Trump has another chance to prove that he will be there for the storm-weary people of the Florida Panhandle.

The devastation brought by Hurricane Sally's slow crawl through the northern Gulf Coast is still unfolding. But the storm - now a depression moving on a path expected to take it through Georgia and South Carolina - inundated barrier islands like Perdido Key, dumped more than two feet of rain onto parts of Northwest Florida and blasted a chunk out of the newly constructed $600 million Pensacola Bay Bridge. The storm, which reportedly killed one person in Alabama, also lashed the eastern Panhandle, where two years ago Michael killed dozens and caused an estimated $25 billion in damage across rural areas and tourist beach towns.

Now, with less than two months until the Nov. 3 election - and millions of mail ballots beginning to go out next week - the storm will once again test Trump's ability to respond to catastrophic damage in Florida.

"A governor or president can have all sorts of policy issues, but it's how they handle disasters that gets them remembered - either in good or bad ways," said Ron Sachs, a spokesman for Rebuild 850, a nonprofit entity formed by former Florida House speakers to help assist in Michael recovery efforts. "We've been fortunate that governors and presidents have been sensitive to Florida's needs after storms like Michael."

 

Rebuilding after Michael was always expected to be a multi-year process. But frustration with the pace of federal aid lingers in the region.

Despite Trump's promises during a May 2019 rally in Panama City that there would be "no games, no gimmicks, no delays" when it came to hurricane relief, it wasn't until the following month - more than 200 days after the storm made landfall - that Congress passed a $19.1 billion Hurricane Michael recovery bill.

Today, efforts to help thousands of displaced homeowners and renters continue, and timber farm owners are among those still waiting for financial assistance after the storm damaged an estimated 2.8 million acres of Florida forest land.

State Sen. Bill Montford, a Democrat whose district includes some of the counties hit hardest by Michael, lost a timber crop of his own and said federal reimbursements are only now becoming available.

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