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Trump holds rally, amid debris, in Florida’s Panhandle

It’s believed the more than 200 days since Hurricane Michael struck is the longest a modern Congress has taken to deliver aid after a storm. That makes Panama City Beach an unusual setting for Wednesday’s political rally.

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Denise Miller is a family nurse practitioner who, the way she sees it, is working harder than the government since Hurricane Michael ravaged this Panhandle community in October.

“It makes me feel good to come to work and help people in my community,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of homeless, people living in damaged houses with black mold sinus infections … I’m seeing this. I’m treating this. It’s deplorable.”

She’s never been a fan of President Donald Trump herself, she said. But as Hurricane Michael relief has lagged for more than 200 days, even her pro-Trump family members are becoming disillusioned, said Miller, 55.

“They’re absolutely shocked we haven’t seen the assistance we need,” she said.

Yet after Trump flew into Panama City Beach on a massive helicopter, Marine One, several thousand sign-waving, red-capped fans filled an outdoor amphitheater. Before he took the stage Wednesday in the fading evening light, the crowd chanted, “Four more years!”

Trump immediately started talking about disaster funding when he took the stage, announcing $448 million in additional federal money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for Michael recovery, as well as 90 percent federal cost share for hurricane costs.

“No games, no gimmicks, no delays, we’re just doing it,” Trump said of the funding, before complaining that Democrats were stalling the disaster funding over Puerto Rico’s insatiable needs for more and more money. “We’re not going to let anybody hold it up … With Florida you drive on. With Puerto Rico it’s a little tougher.”

Earlier Wednesday, Trump was embraced by a contingent of Florida VIPs: Republican U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state elected officials as he arrived at Tyndall Air Force Base. The base was severely affected by the Category 5 hurricane. Almost every building appeared damaged in some way, including a collapsed hangar.

The White House said almost all 700 structures on the base were damaged, roughly one-third were destroyed, and 11,000 base personnel were evacuated.

Trump’s opposition to more hurricane aid for Puerto Rico has sparked a standoff with congressional Democrats that is blocking assistance to the island and elsewhere, including the Florida Panhandle.

After touring the base, Trump promised officials that it will be rebuilt “better than ever.”

Area officials said Panhandle communities that were in the storm’s bullseye— Panama City, Mexico Beach and surrounding Bay County — had received about $1.1 billion in federal aid through mid-April. Mountains of debris have been removed, traffic lights work again and countless homes and businesses have been repaired.

But there’s still much left to do. The Florida Panhandle, known for its uncrowded white sand beaches and sweet oysters, is slowly gaining new dimensions to its identity. School buses still have blue tarps on them, waiting to be fixed. A leather armchair lies, overturned, in a field, as other mounds of metal debris begin to rust.

At least 100 identical plastic yard signs reading “Pres. Trump Help Tyndall Now,” lined the road from Panama City to neighboring Panama City Beach.

At the rally, DeSantis spoke before Trump took the stage, saying he had asked Trump to make this visit. DeSantis also said he successfully lobbied Trump to keep the air force base open after “people in the bureaucracy said, ‘just shut it down.’”

“He didn’t flinch, he didn’t wring his hands. He said, ‘You go tell those folks we’re going to rebuild Tyndall,’” DeSantis said. “I think he’s already done more for any community on the heels of one of these hurricanes.”

DeSantis then accused Democrats of “playing games” with the disaster funding.

It’s believed this is the longest a modern Congress has taken to deliver aid after a storm. In contrast, relief funding after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston on Aug. 17, 2017, was passed two weeks later. Hurricane Michael hit Florida’s panhandle on Oct. 10, when Republicans held control of Congress. Democrats took control of the House on Jan. 3.

The most recent $17.2 billion supplemental aid package proposed by House Democrats would provide $600 million in food assistance and at least $500 million in other help for Puerto Rico plus relief to the Panhandle and victims of California wildfires, Hurricane Florence and the recent flooding in the Midwest.

Miller was in her turquoise scrubs at the Bay County Public Library on Wednesday, a place that started as an emergency staging area shortly after Michael hit and has since become a processing area for more than a hundred local charities.

Robert and Jean Clark were among those seeking help after their mobile home in neighboring Panama City was completely obliterated by Michael. The metal roof was ripped off “like a can of sardines,” they said, and Jean has been having chest pains from the post-disaster stress.

But they don’t think Trump bears blame for the lack of federal disaster funds.

“It’s the federal government. I was part of it for 24 years in the Navy,” Robert said. “There’s too much politics, and not enough ‘let’s do something.’”

They credit Trump with doing his best in the Washington swamp. They say the economic boom has made it easier for them to help themselves recover while they await more aid in their Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer.

“It’s the Democrats that are using this as a ploy. They’re holding it up because they want him to give up the wall in order for there to be any money to come,” Jean said. “He’s not the politician. He’s a businessman.”