PANAMA CITY — Federal government agencies need to be more nimble when helping people and businesses recover from natural disasters like last year's Hurricane Michael, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio was told at a Wednesday hearing he convened at Gulf Coast State College.
Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm, made landfall near Panama City on the afternoon of Oct. 10, 2018, and devastated much of the eastern Panhandle. The storm all but destroyed Tyndall Air Force Base, a major economic engine for the area.
Rubio set up the hearing as chairman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, and heard from a four-member panel comprised of Michael Myrhe, CEO of the Florida Small Business Development Center Network; Col. Brian Laidlaw, commander of the 325th Fighter Wing, Tyndall's host unit; Aaron Rich, owner of Aaron Rich Marketing, a small Panama City business, and Allan Bense, co-chairman of Rebuild 850, formed after the storm to provide ongoing hurricane recovery assistance.
Supplemental federal disaster assistance was slow in coming to the area after Michael because of congressional wrangling over immigration issues. The $19 billion package, some of which went to other areas of the country dealing with hurricane damage, was not approved until May.
At Tuesday's hearing, attended by a few dozen people including Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki and City Manager Mark McQueen, Rubio decried the delay.
"I wish Congress had risen above partisan politics and the games that are often played up there," Rubio said. "There was no one who could question at the time there was an immediate need for the federal government to assist our communities. ... Sadly, Northwest Florida and many survivors here became pawns in a shameful political game ... ."
Rich also was frustrated, by what he told Rubio was a lagging response to his ultimately successful application for a Small Business Administration loan. He sought the loan after his downtown Panama City office, which he had finished renovating just days before the hurricane, was severely damaged by the storm.
Rich wondered why, instead of getting his loan in a single lump sum, he received it in two installments, the last of which wasn't available until March. He also told Rubio that applying for the loan was difficult in terms of trying to gather the information and send paperwork in the midst of storm recovery.
"I had to make it the priority of my life," Rich said. Nonetheless, he called the loan initiative "a good program. It just is time-consuming."
Myhre's Florida Small Business Development Center Network in Pensacola set up 10 business assistance centers in 10 days across the area ravaged by Michael and dispatched two mobile assistance centers. He had a more general criticism of federal personnel working in the area in the aftermath of the storm, suggesting that they relied too much on canned responses rather than truly listening to people's needs.
"There's horror stories out there" with regard to the SBA's work in hurricane-ravaged areas, Myhre said. "This is a key reason why many people don't go to the SBA and seek disaster assistance," he said.
Bense offered Rubio a suggestion, particularly for federal Department of Housing and Urban Development working on storm relief issues. "You've got to give your HUD folks a little bit of leeway to make quicker and better decisions," he said. "There are folks out there who are hurting."
There was, though, some good news at the hearing about Tyndall. Laidlaw said 73 percent of the military and civilian personnel who had been at Tyndall before Hurricane Michael are back at work in recently repaired facilities such as the control tower and in other temporary facilities. If personnel relocated to nearby Eglin Air Force Base after the storm are included, 85 percent of Tyndall's pre-hurricane civilian and military personnel are back at work, he added. At full strength, 23,000 airmen and civilians are assigned to the base.
"The strong relationship between Tyndall and the community has only grown stronger in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael," Laidlaw told Rubio. "With exception of our F-22 (fighter jet) and T-38 (jet trainer) flying operations — much of which we're now conducting out of Eglin, and our Non-Commisioned Officer Academy, which we plan to stand up sometime next year, we have fully resumed all of our missions at Tyndall."
In recent years, Laidlaw added, Tyndall has had a $600 million impact on the local economy. For the coming year, though, that impact is expected to skyrocket, Laidlaw said. While the impact of payroll and indirect jobs — off-base jobs made possible by the presence of Tyndall — is expected to be somewhere around $400 million, the ongoing need for repairs at the base and materials needed for those repairs is expected to have a $1 billion impact on the local economy. And that doesn't include the $3 billion to be spent in the next few years to transform Tyndall to house three F-35 stealth fighter jet squadrons and to build facilities to a standard able to survive a major hurricane.
"Tyndall Air Force Base is vital to our area," said Bense, who thanked Laidlaw for his work to bring the base back online. But Bense added that workforce issues remain a problem in terms of a lack of workers and an associated lack of housing.
"It'll be three to five years before we really ultimately recover," Bense said. "We need all we can get to improve our workforce."
In the meantime, Bense told Rubio that the area is struggling with a widespread public perception that it has already recovered from the hurricane, when the reality is that many people haven't yet even received the insurance settlements they'll need to rebuild their homes.
"We're clearly off everyone's radar," Bense said. "It's still complicated around here. It clearly is better now than it was 10 months ago, but we've got a long way to go."
"This is not going to be the Forgotten Coast," Rubio assured Wednesday's audience, "but we've got to stay on it."