Keynote speakers at Chamber Conference discuss plight of panhandle after Hurricane Michael

By: Monica Casey | WCTV Eyewitness News
August 17, 2019

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) -- "Housing, workforce, and money."

That's what former speaker of the house Allan Bense said the Panhandle needs the most after the devastation of Hurricane Michael.

Bense spoke at the 2019 Tallahassee Chamber Conference, discussing the organization "Rebuild 850."

Other speakers included Gwen Graham, Bense's co-chair in Rebuild 850 and a former US Representative, and Craig Fugate, a former FEMA administrator and Chief Emergency Management OFfice at One Concern.

Bense said it's a forgotten part of the state; 2 out of 5 Floridians believe the area is back to normal.

"We are years away from normalcy," said Fugate.

All speakers agreed that the greatest challenge is housing.

"The number of homeless students in Bay County went from 700 to 5600 after the storm. They don't have place to live," said Bense. "We don't have the workforce to build homes for them because we don't have money for housing. I mean it's a chicken and egg thing, because until we have homes, we can't get a workforce."

Bense also said many in the area are struggling with major mental health issues.

"Farmers really took it on the chin," said Bense. "A billion and a half dollars in losses."

The major goal of Rebuild 850 is to keep the plight of the panhandle in front of the public and raise private dollars.

"They try to help the working man and the working woman that are having a hard time in northwest Florida right now, especially in our part of the world. We have a lot of homeless people, not just in my county, Bay County, but all the surrounding counties that were hit," said Bense. "We have a long way to go."

Speakers also discussed the delay in funding.

"Getting funding after Hurricane Katrina took 10 days. Hurricane Andrew took 31. It took 8 months to get federal funding after Hurricane Michael," said Fugate.

Fugate questioned what can be done to build a resilient economy in the area. He worried about what would draw evacuees back to the area.

"We can't attract new industry if our schools aren't good. We can't attract new industry if our roads aren't good," said Fugate. “If we’re going to do what we’ve always done, we are not going to recover."

Graham focused on the importance of coordination.

She wants one person or entity to check that resources are being used effectively and maximize any donations coming in; some in the crowd suggested she be that person.

You can donate to the cause here: https://rebuild850.org/