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State approves Hurricane Michael recovery plan

Tim Croft
tcroft@starfl.com

Counties still trying to climb out from the aftermath of Hurricane Michael nearly two years ago were provided a little more rope this week.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity announced that the state’s “Action Plan” pertaining to long-term recovery efforts for Hurricane Michael-impacted counties has been approved on the federal level.

The approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will open a stream of $735 million to the region, to be allocated through the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery Plan.

“Overall we are very pleased with the plan,” said County Administrator Michael Hammond in March when the final draft was submitted to HUD.

There are several specific components for county officials to be pleased about.

The plan places Gulf in a four-county cluster with Bay, Calhoun and Jackson as counties deemed to have sustaIned the most significant impacts from the storm and as a result have the most remaining unmet needs.

Those four counties will divide the largest pool of grant dollars, roughly $500 million.

According to the plan, 20 percent of homes in Gulf County sustained some damage from the storm and more than 50 percent of FEMA applicants had verifiable damages.

Business losses were estimated at $331 million with $21 million in remaining unmet needs in the business sector, according to the plan.

The county also sustained more than $121 million in infrastructure impacts, though some documented costs, including debris removal after the storm, were picked up by the state.

Another component sought by the county was matching funds to leverage other grant dollars and the action plan includes some $120 million set aside specifically as match dollars.

In Gulf County alone, $8 million will be used to leverage more than $22 million.

The county has long lobbied state lawmakers about the reality that small rural counties rarely have sufficient funds to match as leverage for federal funds.

The largest of three main pots of CDBG-DR money, $246 million, will be focused on housing, both rental and workforce housing.

That includes $8 million for workforce housing and the plan detailed that the FDEO will “rehabilitate where possible instead of demolition” and that affordability provisions will be in place during a specified period.

For example, affordability provisions on rental units, based on the market prior to the storm, will be in place for a minimum of five years.

On a housing complex of eight or more units, affordability provisions for ownership must be in place for at least 15 years.

The restoration of an affordable rental market was a main topic during the Gulf County town hall held by the FDEO, one of a series across the region.

The plan also includes a housing buyout program for those eligible.

The two other pots of dollars are earmarked for infrastructure and revitalizing the economy ($60 million), including workforce training ($8 million).

A complicating factor in Gulf County, the plan noted, was that 1,940 applicants to FEMA are living in the flood zone, requiring an increase in height to address new flood maps and insurance costs.

As documented in the state plan, Hurricane Michael was the strongest storm to hit the mainland United States in terms of pressure since Hurricane Camille in 1969; Michael was the strongest in terms of wind speed since Andrew in 1982.

In the region, 340,000 homes sustained damage; 56 percent sustaining “major to severe” damage were low- or moderate-income households.

“Hurricane Michael’s strength also took a heavy toll on the region’s infrastructure and economy,” the action plan stated.

The final plan was the product of not only public comment but considerable input from local governments, with a number of counties in the region approving resolutions urging more flexibility at the local level.

During a town hall meeting concerning the plan, an FDEO official said the goal was to make the plan broad enough to fit the varying needs of the counties and zip codes impacted by Hurricane Michael.

The dollars from the plan will be released under a competitive grant process and local governments must apply for the funds.

In the DEO release, it stated DEO will provide technical assistance to fiscally constrained counties, such as Gulf, that were impacted by Hurricane Michael.

This includes assisting local governments develop applications for Rebuild Florida programs, create mitigation and resiliency plans for future storms and project development.