By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — President Donald Trump on Wednesday vowed Tyndall Air Force Base will be rebuilt after sustaining massive damage in Hurricane Michael, and he will approve the state’s request to boost federal funding for storm recovery in Northwest Florida.
Trump, during a campaign rally in Panama City Beach, said the federal reimbursement levels for hurricane recovery in the region will be boosted from 75 percent to 90 percent “in many circumstances.”
“We will never, ever leave your side,” Trump said following chants of “USA” and “four more years” from a crowd at the Aaron Bessant Park Amphitheater. “We’ve already given you billions of dollars, and there is a lot more coming.”
He said $448 million has been approved by his administration for housing disaster recovery assistance.
Trump’s comments came as he and Senate Republicans are locked in a battle with Democrats over how much of a stalled federal disaster-relief package should go to Puerto Rico, which is still recovering from Hurricane Maria in 2017. Delays in the relief package have frustrated Panhandle officials and residents.
Hurricane Michael devastated parts of the region after it made landfall Oct. 10 in Mexico Beach, east of Panama City. Gov. Ron DeSantis requested increased federal assistance after the storm was upgraded to a Category 5 hurricane on April 19.
Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki told WJHG Newschannel 7 it’s “encouraging” to get a promise of increased federal funding and the restoration of Tyndall.
“We know if they’re going to rebuild Tyndall, they have to rebuild Mexico Beach, they have to rebuild Panama City and all the rest of the municipalities around it because we support Tyndall,” Brudnicki said. “It’s 30 percent of our economy, and 90 percent of the people that work at Tyndall live in our cities. So we know if they’re going to rebuild Tyndall, we’re going to get the appropriations to rebuild all our cities and the county.”
Trump’s rally followed a tour of Tyndall. He was joined by DeSantis, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, both Florida Republicans.
“I really believe Northwest Florida is going to come back stronger than ever before,” DeSantis told the crowd.
The Air Force has already spent $450 million rebuilding Tyndall, where about 700 structures were damaged as it and nearby Mexico City Beach took a direct hit from Michael, which came ashore with winds of 160 mph. However, the recovery effort effectively halted on the base on May 1 as Congress has not provided needed supplemental funding.
Trump said he kept the base from closing and reiterated an Air Force recommendation to eventually locate three squadrons of F-35 fighters at Tyndall. The recommendation was made as F-22s formerly at Tyndall were moved after the storm to Alaska, Hawaii and Virginia.
The region has received about $1.1 billion in federal aid, but that amount remains far below what officials say is needed to complete infrastructure repairs, remove debris, reduce the risks of wildfires, rebuild schools and restore businesses areas and residential communities.
“Great conversation with @realDonaldTrump on the flight to #Florida about #DisasterRelief for #HurricaneMichaelincluding support for timber, @TeamTyndall & a 90-10 federal match. optimistic that good news is on the way,” Rubio tweeted after the base tour.
Attorney General Ashley Moody, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis were among those making opening remarks Wednesday night.
Patronis, who is from Panama City, called it a “blessing to have this much attention” from the president.
“This man could be anywhere, literally, he could be anywhere in the world today, but he’s here,” Patronis said. “And you’re being here is showing him that Northwest Florida will come back stronger than ever.”
Northwest Florida is a Republican stronghold, and Trump will need heavy support in the region as he runs for re-election next year. Before Trump arrived Wednesday, Democrats were already criticizing the president and Republicans for delays in storm response.
A Republican-sponsored proposal includes $610 million to fund a gap in Puerto Rico’s nutritional assistance program, an amount Florida Democrats called too low during a media conference call. U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., said the Democratic-led House, which approved a $14 billion relief package in February, would be willing to compromise if the Republican-run Senate could approve its own relief proposal.
Soto added Trump has inflated Puerto Rico relief numbers for political reasons.
“He continues to be overly sensitive about the failures of the administration, and his bruised ego is one of the reasons we find ourselves here today,” Soto said.
Soto noted that out of $41 billion allocated for Puerto Rico relief, $11 billion has been delivered.
Trump contended Wednesday night that money for the Panhandle recovery, as well as money for Midwest farmers recovering from flooding, Hurricane Florence victims in Georgia and the Carolinas and wildfire victims in California, is being delayed because Democrats want more for Puerto Rico.
Before departing for the Panhandle, Trump tweeted, “Getting ready to leave for one of my favorite places, the Florida Panhandle, where we’ve given, and are giving, billions of $$$ for the devastation caused by Hurricane Michael. Even though the Dems are totally in our way (they don’t want money to go there) we’re getting it done!”
Florida has already put up $1.64 billion for removing debris and providing other emergency assistance, money the state hopes to mostly recoup from the federal government.
Additionally, more than $220 million for recovery efforts was included in the state’s $91.1 billion budget that lawmakers approved Saturday.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said during Wednesday’s Democratic conference call that the U.S. House will take up a supplemental funding bill on Friday that includes $700 million for Tyndall.
“Tyndall Air Force Base was flattened, absolutely flattened,” Wasserman Schultz said. “They should not have had to wait this long for the necessary and vital rebuilding support that they need.”