When Hurricane Michael plowed through South Georgia in October, it caused more than $2.5 billion in damage to state agriculture. Eight months later, a federal disaster relief bill won passage to help fund the region’s recovery. State officials traveled to South Georgia on Friday to talk about how to get that money as quickly as possible into the hands of farmers and others affected by the storm.

Next steps on the minds of South Georgians with disaster funds coming

That question was top of mind for the hundreds of South Georgia residents who gathered Friday on a sprawling family farm to hear from Gov. Brian Kemp and other state leaders talk about what’s next.

The event was partly a victory lap to celebrate a top priority of Georgia’s congressional delegation, part mea culpa to the farmers flabbergasted over why it’s taken so long, and part challenge to federal officials to get the spigots flowing.

“We’ve got to keep fighting,” said Kemp, who called on federal authorities to give the state flexibility to move the money quickly. “You can count on us to continue to sing that message — and not have that tied up with bureaucratic red tape. We know it’s already been too long.”

Sitting nearby was the official who will help get that money moving: U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. The former Georgia governor said there were procedural hurdles, but that he’s open to a block grant that would let state officials mete out the funding rather than waiting on Washington.

“Flexibility is going to be required in a few different areas,” Perdue said, adding: “The state can obviously be more nimble and move more quickly in that regard.”

Flexibility was the focus of the day after the record-setting legislative blockade ended Thursday after lawmakers and President Donald Trump struck a deal. The impasse centered on assistance to Puerto Rico, which is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria in 2017.

But Georgia was caught in the tailwind of the fight, much to the fury of the state’s Republican politicians who found they were unable to leverage their ties to Trump or their clout in Washington to swiftly smash the logjam.

As the gridlock ground on, the economic engine of South Georgia sputtered as farmers facing generational damage missed planting season, stopped buying new equipment and flirted with bankruptcy filings.

The impasse finally broke when Trump relented to Democrats’ demands and approved about $300 million more for Puerto Rico than he initially wanted. The president signed it into law Thursday on Air Force One as he prepared to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

The lawmakers did little to hide their still-bubbling anger. U.S. Sen. David Perdue called the impasse “embarrassing” and “ridiculous” as he apologized on behalf of his colleagues in the Senate.

And U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, who lashed out at Trump administration officials and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, spoke mournfully about the unseen impact of the delays.

“I was very concerned about suicides,” the Tifton Republican said. “And I was very thankful the community stepped up to help when there was some pain. This shouldn’t have taken this long, and when you see someone hurting so much, we need to reach out to them.”

‘Won’t have it long’

Long before the hurricane formed and ran through the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, farmers were already grappling with falling commodity prices, increased competition from overseas and a slate of new tariffs.

Then came the hurricane’s torturous trail through the Florida Panhandle and across the farming heartland of southwest Georgia. One University of Georgia estimate found that agriculture in the state — Georgia’s largest industry — suffered more than $2.5 billion in direct damage.

“If you think about it, every farmer was affected in some way in southwest Georgia,” said Hank Jester, the owner of an insurance agency who grows corn, cotton and peanuts.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in 35 years I’ve been in business,” he told the politicians. “Every one of them needed your help, and every one of them appreciated what you’ve done.”

Even if the spigots open, it could still take months for federal money to land in farmers’ accounts. It still must navigate a labyrinth of federal agencies that will oversee the funding. And when Georgians do receive the money, many will turn around and invest it.

“We won’t have it long,” said Dick Minor, an Americus vegetable and fruit farmer. “It goes into our accounts, and it will be farmed out to banks, landlords, seed sales, tractors — it will spur the rural economy.”

That mini-boom will trickle down to other industries, too.

“I talked to a farmer who said it’s really going to affect us, right down to the collection plate at the church,” Minor said. “And it really will.”

The area is already showing signs of life. Crops are growing, banks are lending and a few scattered building projects dot the area. Bart Davis, a veteran cotton farmer, quipped that farmers can’t afford to take time off: “You can’t wait six months and start a crop.”

Scott, the congressman, was at the center of all their remarks. Now that the aid deal is etched into law, his colleagues and friends could joke about all the late-night text messages, upset conversations, the untold number of negotiating sessions.

“I hope you’ll at least delete some of the words from those texts,” Scott told his constituents. “It’s pretty bad when Sonny Perdue comes down and says you need to work on your patience.”

He was thinking, too, about how to better prepare for the next disaster — perhaps by giving federal agriculture officials more leeway to dole out loans or other financing without Congress having to take action.

“We’re a very generous country. We help a lot of people,” Scott said. “And when it was my district that needed it, to not be able to get it in a timely manner, it was extremely frustrating to me. The people that were asking for the help — they wouldn’t have asked for it if they didn’t need it.”

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at www.ajc.com/politics.

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