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Panama City, Panhandle Residents Rally At Capitol To Press Legislature For Relief Funding

Ryan Dailey

Residents of Panama City and other areas of the Florida Panhandle that got walloped by Hurricane Michael came to legislators’ doorstep to make some noise Tuesday. Half a year after the storm, the area is desperate for funding to help schools, remove debris and fund housing.

For many who took the trip east to the Capitol together by bus, the day started at 4:30 a.m.

Carrie Baker, a recently-retired educator who taught at Gulf Coast State College, made the trip as one of the many advocating for Panhandle schools.

“Education is crucial – children are suffering in our schools,” Baker said. “We have a lot of problems after Michael, but one of the most significant is our children.”

Baker says she’s concerned about students’ ability to thrive in an educational environment that’s still struggling to find stability – reeling from loss of students and teachers. She says rebuilding the area and solving a housing crisis caused by the storm are dominos that need to fall before schools can heal.

“We’ve lost so many students – until it impacts the ability of the schools to be funded,” Baker said. “But then you have to think about that – unless we can rebuild and regroup, we can’t get those students back.”

A bill is currently moving through the Senate, backed by North Florida Democratic Senator Bill Montford, that would hold harmless affected school districts for funding lost as a result of student population decline.

India Hansen is at Bay High School in Panama City. She’s felt the aftermath of the storm firsthand.

“A lot of my friends left, and it’s really hard. One of them was my best friend on the tennis team, and he had to move to Jacksonville with his family,” Hansen said.

Aside from so many of her peers having to leave, Hansen and her classmates’ school life still hasn’t returned to normal.

“It’s really painful to see our school still in shambles,” Hansen said. “We’re still in portables at Bay High.”

Rally-goer Leila Shuffler is relatively new to Panama City – having moved in not long before the storm hit. But the response following Hurricane Michael is unlike any she’s seen in the state – and not for a good reason.

“I think more than anything, as a longtime Floridian formerly of Tallahassee now of Panama City, that it’s just been shocking how little has happened,” Shuffler said.

Credit Ryan Dailey / WFSU-FM
A rally-goer writes messages on a blue tarp, which many residents used to cover damages to their houses following Hurricane Michael, at a rally calling for relief funding at the Florida Capitol Thursday.

Shuffler wishes the public’s response could resemble that of other recent disasters – even citing France’s historic Notre Dame Cathedral going up in flames earlier this week.

“They raised, just recently, a billion dollars for Notre Dame, just about three days ago, which is wonderful – but my goodness, we’ve had $2 billion I think, total, for our whole Panhandle area,” Shuffler said.

That disparity in attention paid to the Panhandle relative to more densely populated areas is not lost on state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.

“We’re a part of the state where they scratch their heads – ‘Why is there not this outcry? Why is there not this demand?’ And you look at other disasters around the state or around the nation, with the type of support that Hurricane Harvey received or Superstorm Sandy received, and the dollars and cents don’t make up,” Patronis told the crowd.

The state CFO says Panama City residents who travelled to Tallahassee had the right idea to show up at the Capitol.

Credit Ryan Dailey / WFSU-FM
Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis speaks to a crowd of Panhandle residents on the steps of the state Historic Capitol Thursday.

“The difference is, you’ve got massive populations centers that were hit,” Patronis said. “And those big population centers are able to advocate in ways to be able to move the needle. But this is what you’re doing today, you’re moving the needle.”

Patronis, whose hometown is Panama City, says it all comes down to funding.

“It’s my home, and I just want the recovery to take place,” Patronis said. “In every single thing – every single problem, takes money.”

Panama City Republican Representative Jay Trumbull also spoke at the rally to call out Congress for what he says is a lack of action.

“We have never had this much time pass, post-storm, and not had a disaster supplemental pass,” Trumbull said. “That’s the problem we’re in, that’s what we are seeing today, is the federal government is playing politics with our people. And that is not right.”

Though, Trumbull told the crowd he does think there are better days ahead.

“I believe, absolutely, help is on the way as it relates to the State of Florida. For workforce housing as an example, we have $126 million set aside for Hurricane Michael-affected areas to be funded. We’ve got a $50 million grant program,” Trumbull added.

But, until funding starts coming in and rebuilding ramps up – Carrie Baker says many will continue to feel invisible.

“I thought it was just essential that our voices be heard,” Baker said. “We in the Panhandle of Florida feel like we’ve been forgotten.”

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.