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  1. Opinion

Bold and creative solutions are needed in the Panhandle after Hurricane Michael

Time is running out, so let’s get practical, says Craig Fugate
A long stretch of US 98 remains closed for repairs in Mexico Beach on Friday, September 27, 2019, almost one year after Hurricane Michael made landfall in the small coastal town. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
A long stretch of US 98 remains closed for repairs in Mexico Beach on Friday, September 27, 2019, almost one year after Hurricane Michael made landfall in the small coastal town. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Oct. 19, 2019

I traveled to Tallahassee recently to stand alongside the leaders of REBUILD 850 – one of the leading charitable organizations helping the Florida Panhandle get back on its feet after Hurricane Michael – and to meet with some of Florida’s disaster recovery officials.

A year after the devastatingly powerful storm, bureaucratic inertia now threatens the long-term viability of many communities in the rural Panhandle. The people of that area need specific, practical recommendations to move forward.

They don’t have much time. After overseeing hundreds of post-disaster bureaucratic slug fests, first as director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management and then the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), I recognize that if the tax base in the stricken communities has not recovered in five years, there will be further impacts on public services that will cripple these communities in the decade to come.

There will never be a perfect government response to a Category 5 storm like Hurricane Michael, and the federal agency granting disaster recovery funds, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is saddled with an excruciatingly slow bureaucratic process. However, it is absolutely urgent for the Floridians still living amid the devastation that we continuously improve our response and adapt to the current realities of day-to-day life in the disaster area.

Here are a few ways to offer realistic hope to the people of Northwest Florida:

First, make housing job #1. Housing is clearly the most immediate problem to solve. Michael hit a part of Florida that was already struggling to provide enough affordable and attainable housing for its residents, and existing builders in the region don’t have the capacity to repair and rebuild what is needed. Repairing damaged housing and providing new residential units to fill in the gaps – and accomplishing it quickly and efficiently – is the central challenge for state leadership as it leverages federal funding, primarily from HUD.

The state must prioritize and accelerate collecting data on residents who are still in transient housing or living in damaged homes. We need to know how big the gap is between the housing we have left and what the population actually needs. How many manufactured homes have been lost, and does the manufactured housing industry have the capacity to replace them? How many housing units can be repaired if we act quickly? How many need to be replaced, and how long is it going to take to do that?

Second, be bold. The unique problems of Hurricane Michael will not be solved by doing things the same way they’ve always been done. For example, given a lack of industrial capacity in the region, how do we attract private-sector developers to reinvest in these communities? Where are the builders? Builders from outside the region will likely need to bring in and house additional labor to supplement the area workforce, which could increase construction costs paid with limited HUD dollars.

That doesn’t mean sacrificing accountability as we spend taxpayer funds. It’s possible to be bold and creative while still being responsible stewards of public money. This is an area where the State of Florida should lead from the front, with strong internal oversight of its contractors, and with staff resources to guide small localities through long-term recovery. Where local housing authorities are not available or do not have the necessary management resources, state leadership is essential.

Third, be strong. In a region that will certainly face another major storm, Florida should strongly consider rebuilding with more resilient residential and commercial units – over and above the minimum standards of the building code. The science-based building standards developed through the research of the Insurance Institute of Business and Home Safety represent the national standard for resilient construction, and offer state policymakers many options to improve the performance of Florida’s homes and businesses during the next major storm.

Fourth, be creative. After major disasters in 2016 and 2017, states like Louisiana and Texas faced similar challenges. They rose to the occasion with new and fresh thinking. In my experience, it’s not how much money we spend that makes the difference between an effective response and one that falls short – you can’t just throw money at it and it goes away. What makes the difference is speed, boldness, and the ability to overcome systemic hurdles.

For example, Louisiana – despite being much more fiscally constrained than Florida – supplemented its housing recovery programs with agricultural assistance, providing working capital and planting-year expenses for its devastated farmers. In Texas, state administrators found a creative workaround to allow residents the opportunity to purchase their temporary FEMA housing.

Sometimes when you want to do something new, people want to know all the answers before you start. That’s a recipe for getting nothing done. If we wait for the perfect plan, it will be too late to help the residents who are still struggling more than one year after Hurricane Michael.

At this point, we must rely on state leadership to push through the bureaucratic inertia. For better or worse, Florida now owns the outcome.

Craig Fugate served as FEMA administrator from May 2009 to January 2017, and as Florida’s Emergency Management Director from 2001 to 2009. He led FEMA through multiple record-breaking disaster years and oversaw the federal response to major events including Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Matthew and the 2016 Louisiana flooding.

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