Two former state House speakers, including one whose Panama City home and businesses were damaged by Hurricane Michael, are hoping a new initiative can help Northwest Florida rebuild from the massive storm.
The new Rebuild 850 initiative, named after the region’s telephone area code, is intended to encourage investment from businesses and others while boosting volunteer participation. Backers hope it will help keep people from forgetting the beachfront and rural communities devastated by the Category 4 hurricane, which so far has caused at least $4.5 billion in damage and an estimated 35 deaths in Florida.
Former House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, and his father-in-law, former Speaker Allan Bense of Panama City, said they expect the federal government and state leaders will work to address the region’s needs, just as lawmakers did for other parts of Florida after Hurricane Irma last year.
But with an estimated 20,000 people left homeless by Michael and more residing with family and friends, many victims of the storm can’t wait for government actions that might not occur until the regular state legislative session in the spring.
“We can’t wait for the politics to work itself out,” Weatherford said. “There is enough need today that people need to act. We can’t wait for the politicians — who we have respect for and I was one of — (but) we can’t wait for the Legislature. I think the business community needs to step up and help out the folks that are suffering.”
With people focused on Tuesday’s elections and the hurricane not causing a crisis outside the Panhandle, Weatherford said attention even in Florida has already started to shift away from the impacts of the Oct. 10 storm.
Weatherford encouraged political candidates to donate leftover campaign funds to the effort, while Bense put up $25,000.
Bense, who has been unable to return to living in his home because of storm damage, said he sees the initiative as a complement to the work of government agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state agencies.
As an example, Visit Florida, the state’s tourism-marketing agency, is undertaking an $8.9 million campaign to combat perceptions that all of Florida has been impacted by Michael and by red-tide outbreaks in Southeast and Southwest Florida. Also expected to play a role is Triumph Gulf Coast, which was set up by the state Legislature to direct settlement money from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster into regional-economic development projects in eight Northwest Florida counties.
“I think you’ll see a focus by all the counties, those eight counties that were affected by the BP oil spill, I think you’ll a focus on trying to help work with Rebuild 850,” said Bense, who is a Triumph Gulf Coast board member. “I think there is a way we can really attract new industries and help rebuild existing industries that have been harmed badly.”
The initiative includes Volunteer Florida, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the United Way of Florida, the American Red Cross, the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Association of Counties and the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.