President Donald Trump blamed congressional Democrats for a lagging federal response to the hurricane-ravaged Florida Panhandle on Wednesday, declaring that his political opponents care more about investigating his administration than funding storm relief.
Trump held a campaign rally in Panama City Beach, where Hurricane Michael struck last year as a category 5 storm. He promised $448 million in disaster relief from the Housing and Urban Development Department, on top of what he said was more than $10 billion committed to storm recovery in Florida.
Before the rally, he toured Tyndall Air Force Base, which is situated on a barrier island across the bay and is still being rebuilt after being heavily damaged by Hurricane Michael.
Disaster response is a soft spot for Trump as he enters his re-election campaign. He has come under fire from Puerto Rico officials and their congressional allies for what they say has been an inadequate federal role in the recovery from Hurricane Maria, which devastated the territory in September 2017.
The president has responded by repeatedly, and erroneously, claiming that the government provided $91 billion for Puerto Rico’s recovery, and has alleged without substantiation that some of the money has been lost to corruption.
“Puerto Rico got $91 billion,” he said again on Wednesday, pulling a chart from his coat pocket that he said showed storm-related funding for the territory compared to other parts of the country struck by hurricanes, including Houston and Florida’s panhandle.
“You’re getting your money one way or another and we’re not going to let anybody hold it up,” he said. “The Democrats are trying to stop it, but you’re going to get it. Don’t worry.”
A disaster recovery bill that would provide the Defense Department with $857 million to rebuild Tyndall has been stuck in Congress, in part because of disagreements over providing more money for Puerto Rico. The territorial government says that about $11.4 billion has been earmarked for Maria recovery by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and that it’s received about $5.7 billion so far.
Yet even that bill wouldn’t provide the Pentagon what it needs, according to Shana Udvardy, a climate resilience analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Damage from Michael has hamstrung the base, which houses a squadron of the nation’s most advanced fighter planes, the F-35.
“When we think about how much Tyndall itself needs for recovery, that $857 million is kind of a drop in the bucket,” Udvardy said. She cited an estimate that Tyndall, along with Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, require some $8 billion to recover from hurricane and flood damage last year and this year.
The pace of Florida’s recovery from Michael has been slow in part because of Michael’s intensity and the fact that it struck one of the poorest and most rural places in the state, said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president and chief executive of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, a safety advocacy group.
Politico reported that Florida Republicans warned Trump not to show up for his Panama City Beach rally without an announcement of new aid for the region.
Panama City’s city manager, Mark McQueen, said the city lost or suffered damage to 90% of its houses and buildings in Hurricane Michael. The cost of debris removal combined with emergency measures such as providing water and health care in the storm’s immediate aftermath totaled about $153 million. The city has a $91 million annual budget.
City officials have asked the federal government to reimburse 90% of the costs instead of the usual 75%. The city’s mayor, Greg Brudnicki, was to meet with Trump on Wednesday.
“We certainly could use the federal government’s help and President Trump’s authority to change that reimbursement rate,” McQueen said. That would “immensely help the city meet its financial obligations.”
Trump announced at the beginning of his rally that “we will have the federal government pay for 90% of the costs in many circumstances. We can do that because of the incredible devastation and the size of that storm.”
FEMA has obligated $152 million in state and local public assistance grants for Florida related to Hurricane Michael, according to information the agency has posted on its website. It has also approved $143 million in aid to individuals and families, and provided repair grants to 27,000 households. The agency didn’t immediately respond to a request for the number of houses that have so far been repaired.
While it waits for more funding from Congress, the Air Force has been drawing down its regular maintenance funds to pay for repairs at Tyndall, according to John Conger, who oversaw energy, installations and environmental policy at the Department of Defense.
“You pay for it by using money that you were going to use later in the year,” said Conger, who is now director of the Center for Climate and Security in Washington. “They need this disaster emergency appropriations bill desperately.”
The Air Force secretary, Heather Wilson, said March 27 that recovery efforts at Tyndall would cease by May 1 if Congress didn’t pass a supplemental spending bill, according to the Pensacola News Journal.
The damage to Tyndall illustrates the military’s exposure to climate change, said Alice Hill, who was in charge of resilience at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. She said neither the Department of Defense nor the White House have done enough to address that threat.
“Because our nation has been engaged in a political debate over whether climate change is occurring, it has slowed the preparations of the Department of Defense,” said Hill, now a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “The nation should be quite concerned.”
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