PANAMA CITY- Hurricane Michael recovery efforts continue to plod along in the Florida Panhandle, as a high demand for labor is butting up against limited housing for workers in areas ravaged by the storm 10 months ago, according to business owners and officials.
Also slowing recovery efforts, estimated at about 50 percent complete, have been delays in insurance claim settlements and bureaucratic hurdles that some small business owners faced when seeking government assistance, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was told Wednesday as he held a hearing at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City.
"It clearly is better now than it was 10 months ago, but we’ve got a long way to go," said Allan Bense, a former Florida House Speaker and co-chairman of the Rebuild 850 initiative that is encouraging investment in the region after the hurricane.
Bense, who was able to return to his storm-damaged Panama City home just over a month ago, said businesses in the region, such as McDonald’s restaurants, are struggling to find workers.
"It’s very difficult because of housing for employees to move and live in Bay County and other counties impacted by the hurricane," said Bense, who estimated it could take three to five years for the region to be considered fully restored. "The average working man and working woman are having a very difficult time."
Rubio held the hearing in his role as chairman of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. He said he intends to share with members of Congress issues such as the importance of restoring Tyndall Air Force Base, which was heavily damaged in the storm, and the need to modernize the Small Business Administration’s disaster-relief efforts. He also pointed to the need to address housing in the region.
"The workforce issue is a real problem, in terms of the amount of work that there is to do and how hard it is to find people," Rubio said. "Part of that is due to housing, labor costs and availability. So that’s probably a broader challenge that will involve state and local action."
The Category 5 Hurricane Michael made landfall Oct. 10 in Mexico Beach and caused billions of dollars in damage as it hammered Panama City and continued north through more-rural communities.
Aaron Rich, who owns a marketing company in Panama City that had grown to 13 employees before the storm, said efforts to restart his business could have moved quicker if the process to get a Small Business Administration loan was more convenient.
He noted that most computers and electronics in his office were damaged in the storm, but even if they worked, electricity was out for weeks. Meanwhile, part of the paperwork he had to file was via fax.
"The technological problems that we had, to find out about the program, to find out what documentation was required, the amount of documentation I was required to give, was overwhelming," Rich said. "I think that given what we’ve gone through in the disaster situation, I think there has to be a way to streamline the documentation that is required, because some of that is unreasonable for us to be able to get together in a short time."
Rich also said loans and housing assistance, broken into multiple payouts, need to be dispersed quicker.
"I just don’t understand why there’s an initial amount and then you get the remaining portion of it," Rich said. "By the time I had the money, contractors were backed up months, and I mean three to six months for folks to do things."
Meanwhile, the rush for labor and contractors continues.
State Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, a Panama City resident, noted after the meeting that many contractors are busy working at Tyndall Air Force Base, which is getting $1.7 billion to start its repairs.
"All those laborers, contractors, electricians, are all getting sucked (up) by Tyndall in addition to all the other communities around them," Patronis said. "So, there is a scarcity of qualified skilled labor to do the rebuilding process."
Patronis has pushed for insurers to settle what were more than 20,000 outstanding hurricane claims as of late July.
Bense said delayed insurance payments have slowed home rebuilding, but federal housing agencies need to be given more flexibility to make "quicker and better decisions."