On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the chairman of the U.S. Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, held a hearing titled “Weathering the Storm: Hurricane Michael’s Impact on Northwest Florida’s Small Businesses” on the Panhandle.
Rubio’s opening remarks as prepared are below:
Thank you all for being here, and thank you especially to our witnesses.
A special thank you to Gulf Coast State College for hosting us.
Today’s hearing is titled “Weathering the storm: Hurricane Michael’s Impact on Northwest Florida’s Small Businesses.”
October 10th, 2018, is a date that many will remember as Hurricane Michael made landfall near Mexico Beach as a Category 5 hurricane.
The eye of the storm passed directly through Tyndall Air Force Base, causing nearly $5 billion in damage to the base alone, displacing thousands of Airmen along with their families and civilian personnel, and leaving one of the nation’s most critical installations crippled.
For communities in the Florida Panhandle, the devastation was nothing short of catastrophic.
Many homes were flattened or completely swept away by the inconceivable levels of storm surge and Category 5 winds.
To this day, many of our Northwest Florida businesses remain closed.
The Small Business Administration’s Office of Disaster Assistance plays a critical role in offering assistance to businesses and homeowners impacted by disasters.
Through low-interest loans, they provide many disaster victims and survivors the means necessary to rebuild their businesses, homes, and lives.
The three broad types of Office of Disaster Assistance loans are Physical Business Loans, Physical Home Loans, and Economic Injury Loans.
SBA’s ODA has had its hands full in responding to the string of devastating storms our state has endured these past few years.
According to the SBA, the Office of Disaster Assistance has handled 64,519 calls from disaster survivors in Florida, and received 25,051 total loan applications.
As of last Friday, August 9th, SBA has executed 14,672 loans totaling $693 million for victims and survivors of Hurricane Michael.
Every recovery is unique and the level of devastation caused by Hurricane Michael to the Florida Panhandle is unprecedented in many ways.
Michael’s winds also caused heavy losses to several segments of Florida’s agricultural industry, including crop losses and catastrophic damage to production and processing structures.
The numbers are staggering.
Total losses to agriculture are estimated at nearly $1.5 billion, and total losses to timber stock are estimated at almost $1.3 billion.
Nearly 347,000 acres of productive forest were completely destroyed by the storm’s winds, with losses ranging between 90 percent and 100 percent.
An additional 1 million acres of forestland experienced severe damage due to high wind speeds, with losses around 75 percent.
Another 1.4 million acres experienced tropical storm force winds, with estimated losses of 15 percent.
This level of devastation from Hurricane Michael will have deep and long lasting impacts on northwest Florida’s predominantly rural communities.
The losses to agricultural producers in addition to losses to other business sectors, catastrophic damage to residential and commercial structures, and damage to critical infrastructure, will reverberate across the region for months, possibly years.
Florida’s communities also experienced health effects long after the storm passed and power was restored.
It pains me to learn of the continued traumas that children of all ages are experiencing, and the unforeseen challenges local schools are having to take on.
The high rate of Baker Acts being implemented after the storm is saddening.
I have to say it takes strong, local leadership to be able to respond.
I am incredibly thankful for the teachers and faculty that tirelessly work to help their students, when many of them also lost homes and are also struggling to recover.
I am also truly grateful for Superintendent Husfelt and his team, for their dedication to our students that ultimately led to a Department of Education grant that I was proud to assist with.
Because of the county’s commitment, $1.2 million was recently awarded to the school district to assist in mental health initiatives that are so desperately needed.
And just last week, First Lady DeSantis announced a new telehealth initiative that will help 63 schools in Bay, Gulf, Calhoun, Jackson, Liberty and Franklin counties.
The new portals were installed to coincide with the new school year, and will provide students with mental health services.
At the federal level, it was a frustrating eight months post storm.
That is the amount of time it took for Congress to pass, and the president to sign into law, a disaster supplemental appropriations package that will provide federal assistance to Hurricane Michael survivors.
Congress should have risen above partisan politics to pass a disaster aid package shortly after Hurricane Michael made landfall.
No one could question that there was an immediate need for the federal government to assist our communities in the aftermath of this storm.
Unfortunately, hurricane survivors became pawns in a shameful attempt by Democrats in D.C. to divert attention from needed assistance here to the continued recovery process still ongoing in Puerto Rico.
Thankfully, there was some good news during this painful period. Within weeks of landfall, Vice President Pence visited Tyndall and committed to rebuilding the base. Tyndall will be the Defense Department’s next generation base to receive the world’s most advanced jet fighter, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
President Trump also recently visited Tyndall and reiterated his commitment to rebuild Tyndall “better than ever.”
This means the local economy will play a pivotal role in the reconstruction and will benefit for decades to come through local defense contracts and indirect spending.
Small businesses will have the greatest opportunity to take part in this effort, and I have no doubt that they will outperform expectations and Tyndall will be back.
Better and bigger than ever.
With the disaster supplemental now law, the equally important work of implementation must be carried out.
I will continue to work, every day, with the administration and Governor DeSantis to ensure the disaster monies serves the needs of the Florida Panhandle.
But, I think today’s hearing provides us with an important opportunity to hear from local business leaders about the impacts this devastating storm had on small businesses, and to ensure our recovery efforts are effectively coordinated from the federal to state to local levels.
Far too often after disasters like Michael, when the waters recede and media outlets turn the attention of the nation to the next pressing story or event, victims of disasters are left to pick up the pieces of their lives in the shadows.
But I hope today’s hearing will underscore a very important reminder for everyone in this community: You are not forgotten.
This beautiful part of Florida will not be renamed the “Forgotten Coast.”
The small businesses of Northwest Florida that provide families with dignified work, and a sense of community, will not be forgotten.
Tyndall Air Force Base, its service members, and their families, will not be forgotten.
I am here to make sure of it.