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What Happens to Hurricane Victims When Congress Can’t Function?

Lawmakers can't even compromise over disaster aid anymore. That's a problem today for Panama City, Florida, and a future problem for us all.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Greg Brudnicki usually spends his work week in Panama City, Florida, where he’s the mayor. But last week, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to ask Congress for help, because the city he’s in charge of is dying.

In October of last year, Panama City was ground zero for the fourth-strongest tropical storm in U.S. history. Hurricane Michael, which made landfall with maximum wind speeds of 160 miles per hour and was recently upgraded to a Category 5 storm, ripped more than 1 million trees out of the ground in Panama City alone last October. “We’re a tree city,” Brudnicki told me. “So they were just flying through the air like missiles.”

Those missiles took aim at the homes and businesses of Panama City’s 36,000 residents. After the storm passed, the ground was covered in more than 4 million cubic yards of debris. That may be hard to visualize. Imagine 45 billion eggs’ worth of rotting debris.

Brudnicki and the city manager, Mark McQueen, knew the debris needed to be cleaned up quickly, or else people would start to leave Panama City. “All of that has to be cleaned up before you can rebuild your housing, and restart your economic engine,” he said. But the bill—$150 million—was too high for a city with an annual operating budget of only $90 million and only $13 million in savings. Even with a bank loan and assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the city only had about $100 million. And the entire recovery, they estimated, would cost $300 million.

So shortly after Hurricane Michael, Panama City officials asked Congress to appropriate some money for debris cleanup and general recovery. Seven months later, Congress has yet to oblige. Lawmakers aren’t picking on Panama City, specifically; they have yet to pass a bill funding disaster relief for anywhere affected by the hurricane, which caused 49 deaths and more than $5.5 billion in damage—not Florida, not Georgia, not the Carolinas. Congress also hasn’t allocated disaster relief funding for the historic floods in the Midwest. Victims of the deadly 2018 wildfires in California are still waiting, too.

Democrats want a disaster relief package to include more funding for Puerto Rico’s recovery from the 2017 hurricane season. Republicans don’t, and President Donald Trump has said he won’t sign a bill that includes any—aside from $600 million in food stamp money. Such disagreements are common, but it’s taking an uncommonly long time to sort out. Ordinarily, the parties fight for only a little while before finally allocating funding. “But these are not ordinary times,” the New York Times reported last month. “And it is not clear how or when the impasse can be broken.”

This drawn-out fight has dire implications for the millions of people still suffering from these disasters. Panama City has slowly morphed from a war zone to a ghost town. The city has cleaned up 80 percent of the debris so far, but there’s not nearly enough money to fund rebuilding—much less to fund more resilient structures that can withstand future hurricanes like Michael, which are becoming more likely by the year as the world continues to warm.

“A lot of people have left,” McQueen said. “The Post Office tells us that 14,278 people have filed for a change of address.” It’s understandable why; about 30 percent of the city’s population were renters, McQueen said, and they don’t have a guarantee when they’ll be able to go back to their homes, schools, or jobs. Many of the people who worked in the tourism industry, as well as residents with young children, were renters. Thus, Brudnicki said, 25 percent of our elementary school kids are gone.”

Congress’ inaction is an immediate problem for Panama City, but it’s troubling for anyone who might be affected by extreme weather in the future. Because of climate change, the annual operating budget for disaster relief from FEMA is increasingly inadequate to handle all the disasters that hit the U.S. So communities increasingly rely on Congress for help—to allocate emergency supplemental funding.

“We’re seeing these emergency supplementals more and more as the cost of disasters increase,” Jeff Schlegelmilch, the deputy director for the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, told me last year. “Whereas they used to be sporadic, we’re seeing them almost on a yearly basis.” But on a yearly basis, we’re also seeing Congress become more and more gridlocked by partisanship—unable to pass even the most urgent of bills.

Disaster victims don’t have to be stuck in this loop forever. We could slow climate change, and reduce the likelihood that such extreme weather destroys our communities. We could elect less obstinate politicians, so that disaster aid sails through more easily. Or we could change the way U.S. disaster relief works, to take such decisions out of Congress’ hands entirely.

But for now, the system is useless to disaster victims like McQueen and Brudnicki, who flew back to Panama City on Friday, empty-handed.