For Philip McMillan, farming timber is what matters – not the bickering in Washington.
“All we hear is bickering going on, and nothing’s getting done," he said. We’re all just dumbfounded.”
McMillan’s Neal Land and Timber Company has been around since 1914 in Calhoun County, Florida, one of the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Michael more than 200 days ago - a Category 5 storm that ripped through northwestern Florida leaving a massive path of destruction, laying waste to acres and acres of valuable pine trees.
And the community – which has gotten virtually no federal aid, yet – is still waiting as Congress and the White House squabble over a multibillion-dollar disaster aid package; a disagreement largely rooted in President Trump’s opposition to more money going to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, which was hit by two hurricanes two years ago.
Democrats are also insisting on Republican-backed restrictions against the use of federal dollars for certain border security expenditures.
A breakthrough looked possible this past weekend, with Republicans agreeing to free up more federal grant money for Puerto Rico, but Democrats were suspicious. And senators on both sides of the aisle now say they are only cautiously optimistic they can reach a deal by Memorial Day. The House is expected to pass its own package by week’s end, but the proposed increase in funds for the U.S. island nation has been rejected by the administration.
“There’s plenty of blame to go around,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said, adding, “The White House shares in that, but so do all of us,” referring to members of both parties.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, who has worked to secure more money for Puerto Rico, called on Democrats to take the $600 million in nutrition assistance needs for the island in the current disaster package and push for more later in the appropriations process.
“We’ve all got to get something done now,” Scott pleaded.
“Let’s be candid, everyone’s got to move a little on this,” said Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., whose own state was hit hard by Hurricane Michael, wiping out what was expected to be a bumper cotton crop.
And as the president heads south to the storm zone Wednesday – to Panama City for a campaign rally – McMillan said he sure hopes Trump brings some good news.
“I hope he brings some attention to the area. He’s certainly going to see a lot of destruction,” the timber farmer said, particularly as Trump is expected to arrive at Tyndall Air Force Base which was ravaged by the storm and still awaiting federal help.
But the Air Force is not immune to the congressional inaction, either. As of May 1, the service was forced to stop all projects across the country, including the rebuilding of Tyndall, as it awaits congressional action.
Sen. Scott called that a potential “national security vulnerability,” and his Republican colleague, Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, whose own state - and Marine base, Camp Lejeune - was also crushed by the storm and still awaiting Washington’s help, agreed.
Bay County Commissioner Griff Griffitts, who represents the Panama City Beach area, told ABC News, “I would hope that the president would come down and deliver some good news,” adding, “It’s astonishing that federal disaster relief hasn’t come through for this area. None of the natural disasters are partisan. Simply fund disaster relief. We need help, and we’re not a community that typically asks for help.”
“I’m just about as aggravated as can be,” said Justin Jones, a first generation cotton farmer in Leesburg, Georgia, about 60 miles from the Florida panhandle. “I’ve had to cut acres this year. I owe too much money, and I lost 60 percent of my profit...I’m going backward, and I”m going backward very quickly.”
The 40-year old farmer told ABC News that he started out with 2,700 acres of cotton and is now down to just 1,300. “It’s aggravating to see the turmoil in Washington given what I’m going through.”
“Farmers in this area are borrowing all the money they can get from banks to keep what’s left of their farmland,” Trey Pippin, a 41-year old pecan tree farmer in Leesburg, told ABC News. Pippin lost a staggering $1.8 million when Hurricane Michael wiped out more than 12,550 of his pecan trees, which take about seven to 10 years to mature and yield profits.
McMillan – a fixture in the foresting community, according to state officials – agreed, “Katrina got on the news, but we’re not. It’s frustrating.”
And all of the inaction, McMillan said, is having a cascading effect. The local school population is down 15 to 20 percent. Businesses are hurting. Some neighbors are ruined. The hurricane destroyed 72 million tons of timber amounting to a $1.3 billion loss to the industry, according to the Florida Forestry Association.
“Some who’ve borrowed and bought their land, they’ll lose it. No two ways about it. And if you planted trees as a new young couple, and you wanted to send your kids to school, well now that’s not possible. If you planted it for your old age, for your retirement, well, that’s over. I mean, to lose a crop you don’t get but once every 20 to 30 years, very few people have that kind of money,” the seasoned forester told ABC News.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, McMillan says. The real problem now is the danger of forest fires as wildfire season is fast approaching. As summer comes, a forestry official told ABC News, the fallen timber dries out, and lightning strikes from the approaching hurricane season make for a combustible mix.
“The one-two punch is - you have such an accumulation of downed timber, the local markets are flooded almost immediately. There’s no way to absorb the amount of timber destroyed, so some don’t even pick it up. It’s not worth it, and that creates a major fire hazard,” McMillan explained.
“We’re begging for help to try to mitigate that damage,” he said, adding, “People of the Panhandle haven’t been sitting holding their hands. We’re doing our best, but we’re now sitting here holding our breath. Send us some aid down to help with the wildfire mitigation, and then help people recover.”
Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, said he spoke to the President about the dire need Monday while at the White House for an unrelated event and afterward told reporters that he hopes Trump will have an announcement about Hurricane Michael relief when he gets to Panama City.
For McMillan and his fellow farmers, the help cannot come soon enough.
“We’re a pretty independent bunch of people. We don’t need government programs as a part of life, but when you have something this devastating, it’s a special needs situation. It’s a dire situation.’