U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) took to the Senate floor late Monday afternoon to urge the Department of Commerce and the Department of Agriculture to immediately release the disaster funding approved by Congress in February to help Floridians who are still recovering from Hurricane Irma.
“It has been almost six months since Hurricane Irma struck Florida, and it’s been about a month since we passed the most recent disaster supplemental appropriations bill, and that finally included money for Florida’s fisheries, citrus growers, and communities across the state that we’ve been fighting for since day one since the storm passed,” Nelson said on the Senate floor Monday. “The disaster supplemental appropriations gave NOAA $200 million for federal fishery disasters like the one Secretary Ross declared in Florida. But where’s the money?”
In February, Congress approved a disaster supplemental that included critical funding for some of Florida’s most important industries affected by Hurricane Irma, including commercial fishing and citrus.
“Florida’s citrus industry suffered over $760 million in losses from the storm … The citrus industry just cannot survive those kind of losses, and that’s why we have a disaster appropriations bill for $760 million in losses from the storm. The rest of Florida agriculture took a big hit, and it’s a total estimate of $2.5 billion in damages,” Nelson said. “Well it’s March, and these folks haven’t seen a dime.”
The disaster supplemental approved by Congress last month included $3.8 billion for U.S. Department of Agriculture, with $2.36 billion allocated to provide disaster assistance for Florida citrus growers and other farmers impacted by last fall’s storms.
“So, madam president, let me say it again, this is unacceptable for the slow-walking, the foot dragging that’s going on in getting the money out the door. I’m going to keep pounding on this until the folks in Florida start getting the help they need and deserve,” Nelson said.
Here is the video of his speech:
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson
Remarks on the Senate floor
March 5, 2018
Sen. Nelson: Madam president, it has been almost six months since hurricane Irma struck Florida, and it’s been about a month since we passed the most recent disaster supplemental appropriations bill, and that finally included money for Florida’s fisheries, citrus growers, and communities across the state that we’ve been fighting since day one since the storm passed.
Well, today I spoke to the Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and I asked him to immediately release this critical funding to help the people of our state.
Florida’s fishermen are waiting for help. Hurricane Irma caused extensive damage to vessels, facilities, docks, equipment and gear, especially down in the Keys. And many in the spiny lobster industry lost all of their traps. The disaster supplemental appropriations gave NOAA $200 million for federal fishery disasters like the one Secretary Ross declared in Florida. But where’s the money?
Well, let’s talk about the broader impact to the oceans. Did you know that Florida’s coral reef track is the third largest barrier reef in the world? It’s a reef that starts south of Key West, goes all the way up the coast, all the way almost to Fort Pierce. The coral supports the spiny lobsters and the stone crabs, which are served in the restaurants around the country. This industry is so important to Florida’s economy. And what the hurricane did, Hurricane Irma tossed all manner of debris around. One county spent $2 million to remove waste, roofs, bicycles, trailer homes, boats and appliances, but the debris was also swept into the water which is threatening the corals and into the canals where it blocks transportation.
I want you to take a look at this picture and you will see here is one of the canals in the keys. Look what’s sitting in the canal, a whole mobile home lifted up from this mobile home park on this side of the canal, and there it is in the water.
Take a look at this. So, you see what’s in that canal? You see out here? That’s the ocean. This canal’s coming right in. Now, what happens is this debris … goes out there in the Atlantic, it gets near the reef, some of it submerges, the wave action is sending it back and forth, and you can imagine any one of those pieces of debris knocking constantly in to delicate coral that is already diseased, that is already overheated because the temperature of the water rising, and you can imagine what is happening. And so that — whether it’s a mobile home sitting in the canal or whether it’s all of this junk that’s sitting in a canal and eventually goes out, this is what we need help with.
Well, it’s been over a month since we passed the disaster supplemental appropriations bill. Why isn’t it flowing?
That’s why I called the secretary of commerce this morning. I told him, Mr. secretary, my question — request is very simple … It’s appropriated. It’s there. I said, Mr. secretary, will you please crack the whip on NOAA so you can get this money out and we can get this place cleaned up as well as those coral reefs protected from the damage that they are already undergone. And then I said, and what happened in this storm is all of those fishermen, whether it is for lobster or whether it is stone crab traps, they were all swept away. The poor fishermen, they don’t have any traps.
They need help too and that’s what this disaster appropriations bill is for. But, Mr. secretary, you’ve got to crack the whip on them to get them going.
Now, unfortunately, this is not the only issue that we are facing because Florida’s citrus industry suffered over $760 million in losses from the storm. Why? Because the trees were full of the fruit that was going to be picked within just a few weeks.
So along comes the storm. The winds are severe and in Southwest Florida some of the citrus crops were lost 100 percent. In fact, the winds were so high that they ended up uprooting citrus trees. As you got further north into central Florida, the groves there lost 50 to 60 percent of their crop.
The citrus industry just cannot survive those kind of losses, and that’s why we have a disaster appropriations bill for $760 million in losses from the storm. The rest of Florida agriculture took a big hit, and it’s a total estimate of $2.5 billion in damages.
And in February, we finally came through with the $3.8 billion for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of that money, $2.6 billion was supposed to go directly to farmers and ranchers.
Well, it’s March and these folks haven’t seen a dime. And so, after I talked to the Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross I put in a call to the secretary of agriculture.
I have called several times today. I have yet to connect with him, but if any of his staff is listening, there is a bottleneck at the USDA preventing this money from going to the families that desperately need it.
And I will continue to call Secretary Perdue to do what I asked Secretary Wilbur Ross to do, crack the whip on his organization to get the money flowing, because that’s what we passed the supplemental emergency appropriation for. Now the federal agencies need to get the money out the door.
This is so frustrating because the administration knew that congress was discussing a disaster supplemental bill way back when Hurricane Harvey hit in August on Texas, and then Irma hit, and then Maria hit.
Now, six months later, most of the federal agencies are just starting to dust off their pencils and figure out how they are going to allocate the funding. What is wrong with you all? People are hurting. They are going bankrupt. You’ve got to get that money out.
So you can imagine how you’d feel if your family’s entire citrus crop had been wiped out and you had been holding your breath waiting for disaster assistance funding which finally came over a month ago and then you were told by the folks in the agency, in this case USDA, you were told you were going to have to wait for several more months until USDA figures out how to get you the money.
No wonder people are fed up with bureaucracy.
Additionally, many of our cities and counties have yet to see any reimbursements from FEMA for Hurricane Irma. In fact, many have yet to be fully reimbursed for Hurricane Matthew, which was almost two years ago, and it struck an unbelievably — all those Hurricane Matthew counties that were devastated up and down on debris removal, all of the counties and the cities front loaded, paid for the removal, the state of Florida didn’t turn it in on time, and of course what we had to do to cover the state of Florida’s mistake was to plead for FEMA, forget the mistake, it’s the local counties and cities that need the money.
And so what’s happening of not getting the money out is totally unacceptable. So while we are still waiting for reimbursements from these storms, can we expect these local governments to prepare for the 2018 hurricane season that will start in just a few months, right around the corner?
So, madam president, let me say it again, this is unacceptable for the slow-walking, the foot dragging that’s going on in getting the money out the door. I’m going to keep pounding on this until the folks in Florida start getting the help they need and deserve.
Madam president, I yield the floor.
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