As Region Waits For Hurricane Aid, Trump Holds Rally In Florida Panhandle

Originally published on May 9, 2019 8:05 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

The Florida Panhandle - that's the northwest part of the state - was devastated by Hurricane Michael seven months ago. Many of the communities along the coast are still waiting for federal disaster aid. And then last night, they had a visitor. President Trump traveled to Panama City Beach for a campaign rally. He announced $448 million in disaster recovery funds for Florida. And he said this.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Panama City Beach is open for business - as beautiful as ever.

KING: But not everyone is as optimistic as the president. Al Cathey is the mayor of Mexico Beach. That town was all but wiped out by the hurricane. He talked to NPR earlier this week.

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AL CATHEY: Five days after the storm, I met him. And he said, hey, you're going to get plenty of help. And I said, well, great because we are in a bad way. And I told him not to forget us. And I feel like that we have been forgotten.

KING: All right. On the line with me this morning is Philip Griffitts. He's chairman of the Bay County Commission. The city of Panama Beach is in that county.

Good morning, Mr. Griffitts.

PHILIP GRIFFITTS: Good morning. Good morning.

KING: So you recently talked to my colleague here at NPR, Greg Allen. And you told him that, quote, "as much as Bay County votes Republican, we don't need a political rally right now. We need some good news from the federal government." How did you feel about the rally last night? Did your mind change at all?

GRIFFITTS: Yeah. I mean, absolutely. It was better news. I wouldn't say it was a complete solution to all our problems. The president announced the 90-10 cost share. So for your listeners, what that means is now the responsibilities of the cities and the counties has shifted to a 5% versus a 12.5%. The federal government picks up 75%. FEMA and the counties pick up 25%. So now with a 90-10 cost share, that reduces our burden to 5%, which is, in Bay County's eyes, equates to roughly 40-, $45 million.

KING: Oh, man, a lot of money...

GRIFFITTS: Oh, a lot of money.

KING: ...Which means you'll be getting a lot of federal money.

GRIFFITTS: We sure hope so. The - we really need the disaster bill passed. The 90-10 cost share is, obviously, a great piece of news that we were hoping for. However, the federal disaster supplemental bill that is making its way through Congress truly is what helps us in the long-term recovery process with community block development grants, transportation infrastructure, those things that were heavily damaged that we really need to help us get back up on our feet.

KING: You had a chance to meet the president yesterday when he landed. Did you say anything to him?

GRIFFITTS: I did. I told him, thank you for coming. Obviously, it's not every day the president comes to your hometown. So we told him, thank you for coming. But we also told him to use his leadership skills and to pressure the leadership of Congress to quit the petty politics of fighting over little things that aren't really much of a concern to the disaster areas of 2018. While I'm very passionate about Bay County and my community of Panama City Beach - Panama City and Lynn Haven and all our municipalities, there are several other communities in this nation that were impacted in 2018 as well. Hurricane Florence devastated South Carolina - Paradise, Calif., wildfires. Those communities who I've spoken to - some of their leadership are singing the same songs that we are, and they need help as well.

KING: How would you summarize the federal government's response to this hurricane? It sounds like you're saying slow in a word.

GRIFFITTS: Yes. I would say, based on just what we've learned since the storm, there's been a much faster reaction to previous natural disasters. Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas, August 25, 2017. And President Trump signed a bipartisan bill on September 11, roughly 17 days later.

KING: So you're looking for this to speed up. I want to ask you a last question. You've been leading recovery efforts. And I want our listeners to hear, what are the biggest challenges that are still facing your community to this day? What are you seeing?

GRIFFITTS: Well, truly, the biggest challenge that's facing our community are affordable housing and workforce. The affordable housing, obviously, was decimated. Seventy percent of our community is - lives in rental facilities - some sort of apartments or rental homes. And they were completely destroyed, so that workforce has left. It makes it a challenge for those people that still have businesses to find good help. And then, of course, the municipalities and the county are facing huge financial burdens. Our debris haul-off bill - we were told by the state this is the largest debris removal done by a county in American history. Our debris-removal bill for Bay County is roughly $380 million.

KING: Oh, my God.

GRIFFITTS: But then our yearly budget is $350 million.

KING: So a lot of work left to be done - Philip Griffitts is the chairman of the Bay County Commission.

Mr. Griffitts, thank you so much for taking the time.

GRIFFITTS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.