Florida is still hurting from Hurricane Michael — will DC lend a helping hand?

Florida is still hurting from Hurricane Michael — will DC lend a helping hand?
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True or false: With less than six weeks to go before the start of the 2019 hurricane season, our nation’s leaders have come together to send assistance to the Florida Panhandle communities that were devastated by October 2018’s Hurricane Michael.

As anyone who is living through the enduring impact of that storm will tell you, the answer is a resounding “false.”

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Washington, D.C., has been agonizingly slow to react. That’s why I’m coming to D.C. this week to meet with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Housing and Urban Development, National Security Council and the Education Department, as well as Florida Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDemocrats ramp up warnings on Russian election meddling Davis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump Lincoln Project expands GOP target list, winning Trump ire MORE and Rick Scott and Rep. Neal DunnNeal Patrick DunnWatchdog calls for probe into Gohmert 'disregarding public health guidance' on COVID-19 Massie plans to donate plasma after testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies Multiple lawmakers self-quarantine after exposure to Gohmert MORE, among others. We need to keep the issue on the radar of our nation’s leadership.

Lest we needed a reminder about the seriousness of Hurricane Michael, this month NOAA gave the storm the official designation of a Category 5 hurricane. Michael was the strongest hurricane to ever make landfall in the Panhandle, and the first Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. since Hurricane Andrew leveled parts of South Florida in 1992

By virtually every measure, the storm’s impact was unprecedented. Bay County, which was at the center of the winds and water, was littered with 10 times as much debris as 2017’s Hurricane Irma created in 50-plus counties across Florida. Post-Michael, FEMA reports that 31 million cubic yards of debris have been removed — enough to fill 12 million standard-sized truck beds.

And there is still more to do.

For these communities, the two most acute near- and long-term needs are housing and education. Thousands have been forced to change addresses within the county, as residents move from place to place to find shelterSimilarly, there are 5,500 homeless children in the city.

Estimates from the county put the total damage amount over $1 billion. Moreover, the significant number of homes in the community that have been passed down from one generation to the next makes them ineligible for FEMA repair assistance, as establishing a clear ownership title is next to impossible.

To date, the cost of the storm’s damage represents more than 200 percent of Bay County’s annual budget — an assessment that doubles when the amounts from the county schools and Panama City are included. Earlier in April, the Bay County Schools superintendent delivered the news that massive layoffs are in the offing unless aid arrives soon.

Just as there is a need for the physical repair of schools, the emotional and psychological well-being of students is equally a priority. Since reopening last fall, 70 children have been temporarily detained on an emergency basis due to mental health crises, and all Bay District students are currently receiving two free meals a day because of the disaster.

In spite — and possibly because — of these challenges, the resilience of the Panama City and Bay County communities continues to respond with hope and promise. Examples abound: lacking a venue for the high school prom, which had been destroyed by Michael, students instead held it outside and gave everyone a respite from the last six months of stress. And recognizing the failure of phone and Internet connectivity after the storm, we persuaded Verizon to make Panama City one of its first five cities in the country to receive new 5G capabilities.

As the mayor of Panama City, the pride I have in how much we’ve done with the scarce resources we’ve had is beyond measure. Our neighbors have taught us that they will bear the burden of rebuilding and will make the community bigger, better, and stronger in the years ahead.

It’s time for Congress and the White House to mirror that commitment, put their differences aside, and recognize that disaster relief funding will have an immediate and direct positive impact on our friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens in Florida and across the country. Given the leadership we see on the ground every day, we know there is no challenge that can’t be overcome.

Greg Brudnicki is the mayor of Panama City, Fla.