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  1. Opinion

Editorial: The Florida Panhandle needs help, Mr. President

Here's hoping that President Donald Trump announces an end to a partisan showdown over much-needed disaster relief when he visits the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday. Victims of Hurricane Michael still await a federal aid package seven months after the Category 5 storm roared ashore and leveled large swaths of the coast. That's too long. No more politics. These hard-hit Floridians deserve better.

House Democrats most recently offered $17.2 billion in supplemental aid to help victims of Hurricanes Michael and Florence, California wildfires and flooding in the Midwest. The package also included $1.1 billion in food and other assistance for Puerto Rico. In case anyone has forgotten, Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, not a foreign country.

Yet Puerto Rico is the sticking point and the Florida Panhandle is collateral damage. Trump has crusaded against sending additional aid to Puerto Rico, devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. He has repeatedly attacked the island's leadership and questioned the official death toll, pegged at an astounding 2,975. He's also advanced several unfounded conspiracy theories about how the island wasn't hit as hard as reported. He used Twitter this week to once again blast the amount of aid for people who remain in desperate need.

Congressional Democrats understandably have resisted separating Puerto Rico from the package. With good reason, they fear it will provide Trump a pathway to abandon the island's residents, who are U.S. citizens. Senate Republicans most recently offered $600 million for food assistance and $304 million for repairs. Democrats were still considering it, and the White House has not said if Trump would go along.

The Panhandle has become an unintended casualty in the fight in Washington, making an already dire situation worse. Hurricane Michael caused $25 billion in damage in October. Since then, much of the short-term aid has run out. Many housing vouchers expired last month. Residents live in badly damaged homes. Mounds of tree limbs, shattered buildings and other garbage line the streets. Residents worry that the next storm could turn all the debris into dangerous projectiles. The 72 million tons in downed trees heightened the risk of wildfires.

Bay County, with an annual budget of $340 million, awaits repayment of $250 million in loans for debris removal. Even Tyndall Air Force Base is tied up in this battle. Construction to fix extensive damage halted May 1 due to a lack of money. No wonder Panhandle residents consider themselves to be living along the Forgotten Coast.

The state has done what it can. The Florida Legislature has dedicated more than $100 million to repair and replace housing lost from the hurricane. But Congress has billions at its disposal. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was at the White House earlier this week, was hopeful about Trump's visit. "Why would you want to come unless you are going to announce more good news?" he told a group of reporters on the weekend.

Good point. Not that it should matter, but Panhandle voters solidly backed Trump in the 2016 election and the president should remember that as he rallies the party faithful today. Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott have been advocating on the Panhandle's behalf, and it's past time for Trump to agree with Congress on a significant relief package that includes everyone, both the Puerto Rico and the Florida Panhandle. This nation rises to the occasion after hurricanes and other national disasters to assist fellow Americans, and the president and Congress have an obligation to provide that assistance now.

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