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’I’m going home to a disaster’: Congress leaves town without passing Hurricane Michael aid

The spending deal signed by Trump failed to include disaster relief. A Panhandle Republican called it a ‘shame.’

The painstaking negotiation to reach a deal to keep the government open failed to include one thing dear to northwest Florida: Aid for the victims of Hurricane Michael.

U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Panama City, said he was stunned and disappointed that the package Congress approved Thursday and signed by President Donald Trump on Friday didn’t include the disaster relief for the Panhandle. Just three weeks ago, Senate Republicans voted for $12.7 billion in disaster aid for victims of 2018 natural disasters. Meanwhile, the House, led by Democrats, approved $14.2 billion for victims of hurricanes, wildfires and other disaster in its 2019 spending bill.

How, then, was disaster aid left off the table in the final deal? Dunn said he has no idea. He voted against the spending bill, but it easily passed both chambers.

“It was just a difficult discussion, and I think they reached their limit on what they could negotiate,” Dunn told the Tampa Bay Times on Friday. “Which is a shame. I’m going home to a disaster zone.”

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Sen. Marco Rubio suggested the exclusion was deliberate and that hurricane victims were being used as “pawns” in a future legislative fight.

“Congressional negotiators failed to include disaster funding in this package so they can use it as leverage in an upcoming effort to lift spending caps,” the Florida Republican said in announcing why he voted against the bill. Meanwhile, Florida’s other Senator, Rick Scott, voted for the final agreement.

Hurricane Michael struck the Florida Panhandle last October as a vicious and deadly Category 4 storm. It made landfall as one of the strongest on record to hit the United States.

The cleanup remains substantial and will take years. The storm generated 20 million cubic tons of debris between Mexico Beach and the Georgia state line, state officials have estimated. One-third of residents are still homeless, Dunn said, and access to cell service and utilities is spotty for many others. The region lost a level two trauma center.

“Everybody is struggling with cash flow, they’re struggling with debris removal,” Dunn said. “It’s tough to make contracts to rebuild when we don’t have the money.”

Dunn worries that the national attention has moved away from the Panhandle and the “Forgotten Coast" is living up to its name. Still, he said he expects Congress to take up the disaster package when lawmakers return at the end of the month.

“When you’re on the ground emotions take over and it does feel like something will never be done,” Dunn said. “But I just refuse to believe we can’t get this across the finishline. We have the votes. Leadership just needs it come to floor.”