Bay County's roadmap from Hurricane Michael's fury to a prosperous future is near complete.
After five months of intense planning, with hundreds of meetings and research sessions involving more than 800 area volunteers, the Bay County Long-Term Recovery Task Force has released a 271-page final draft report containing 322 separate proposals and initiatives to repair the destruction from the 2018 storm and jump-start the county's rebirth as a vibrant, 21st-century community.
The estimated price tag is as breathtaking as the report's ambitious agenda: It recommends seeking a total of $6.9 billion from various federal, state and private-sector funding sources. Along with the estimated $4 billion cost to restore Tyndall Air Force Base, the Task Force estimates raise the overall financial hit from the Category 5 hurricane to more than $10 billion.
Bay County Commissioner Robert Carroll, who has chaired the nine-member panel since its creation in late December 2018, said he is optimistic the report will prove to be a valuable and effective blueprint for the county's recovery.
"We are speaking as one community with one voice," he said of the Task Force, whose members represent the county, its seven cities and the Bay Public School District.
"The Long-Term Recovery Plan will be used as a tool that ties together the federal, state and local recovery efforts with the resources of the private sector, nonprofit organizations and faith-based coalition," Carroll wrote in the report's introduction.
Drafted with the help of the Tallahassee-based disaster recovery consulting firm The Integrity Group, and Renatus Advisors of Caguas, Puerto Rico, the report will be formally presented to the Task Force at a meeting Tuesday at the Bay County Government Center, beginning at 2 p.m. Like all its previous sessions, the Task Force meeting will be open to the public.
The document details the profound destruction to much of Bay County last Oct. 10, when Hurricane Michael cut a 350-mile-long swath of destruction as it came ashore at Mexico Beach. In addition to 25 confirmed deaths in Bay County alone, total property losses of $25 billion, and the displacement of more than 22,000 county residents, the storm generated over 31 million cubic yards of debris, destroyed over 3 million acres of timberland, and drove a knife into the local economy.
Unemployment spiked from 2.8 percent before the disaster to 6.1 percent in January, and it has subsided only slightly since then, leaving a 5-percent unemployment rate. The county's housing inventory remains in a critical state more than seven months later.
To come up with not only a detailed, specific plan for recovery, but one on which all nine government entities would agree, the Task Force created six volunteer branches dealing with Infrastructure, Economic Recovery, Housing, Natural & Cultural Resources, Health & Social Services, and Planning & Capacity Building. Meeting separately, these working groups assembled a preliminary list of projects and individual proposals for the county's recovery, ranging from a new $50 million water treatment plant at Deerpoint Lake to recreation programs for senior citizens.
Carroll took pains to praise what he called the "incredible energy" of the citizen volunteers who undertook most of the detailed work.
During the last two months, the Task Force and its consultants have refined and generated cost estimates for all but a handful of the proposals, as well as identifying the most likely funding sources for each one.
For example, the report recommends the county apply for federal funding through the Environmental Protection Agency as well as state funds from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for the 30 million-gallons-per-day water treatment plant, which it deems essential as a backup source for drinking water should a malfunction or disaster knock out the existing 60 million-gallons-per-day Deer Point Lake facility. The report also identifies five specific tasks the county should take, including: (1) evaluating the overall need for the project; (2) investigating the funding sources; (3) conducting preliminary engineering and planning; (4) awarding the contract and (5) construction.
A similar matrix is included for all of the other projects identified by the Task Force and its six branches.
The report echoes observations many participants made over the course of the Task Force's life that one of the thorniest challenges facing Bay County is creating sufficient housing for low- and moderate-income residents.
"In Panama City alone," the report notes, "69 percent of all residential homes were damaged in some significant way. This has created a housing and economic crisis that will be felt for decades."
On Oct. 1, 2018, Bay County had 8,308 housing units of all types, of which 3,609 were classified as low-income housing. Currently, 5,500 Bay County families are still considered homeless. Two weeks later, less than half of the total housing inventory remained habitable, the report concludes. Building 6,000 new housing units over the next decade to replace storm losses and accommodate population growth will require more than $1 billion.
The housing chapter of the report recommends 23 specific proposals, ranging from short-term development of emergency housing on trailer park properties where the existing structures were all destroyed, to a number of long-term initiatives to promote new housing construction by public-private partnerships.
When the Task Force formally accepts the draft final report Tuesday, it will not mark the end of the panel's work, Carroll said. The document recommends a series of "implementation steps" including continuation of the panel's existence to implement a comprehensive strategy for the pursuit of funding for the individual projects.
In particular, the report calls for an aggressive follow-up effort to obtain federal Community Development Block Grant/Disaster Recovery funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a major financing source. Carroll noted he and other Bay County leaders visited Congress and a number of federal agencies during their trip to Washington, D.C., two weeks ago.
"We've already started this" effort, he said.
The report also calls for a formal mechanism by which Bay County and its cities will research and pursue additional funding sources in future years as they are identified.
And, finally, the report recommends the creation of technical support for the county's different municipalities in the areas of financial management, grant acquisition and management; legislative appropriation requests; accounting, investment, budgeting and debt issuance.
"The Long-Term Recovery Plan will be used as a tool that ties together the federal, state and local recovery efforts with the resources of the private sector, non-profit organizations and faith-based coalitions," Carroll wrote in the report. To which he added in an interview on Friday, "We're excited that this is finally taking off."
Those interested in reading the Task Force report and its individual proposals can find it at: https://www.dropbox.com/s/q4siyw2p1h4n8pc/LTCR%20Plan%20-%20reduced%20size.pdf?dl=0
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