Florida's storm-battered citrus growers are closer to landing federal relief sought since Hurricane Irma devastated large parts of the state's agriculture industry in September.
The U.S. House on Wednesday will consider providing $2.6 billion for lost farm crops as part of an $81 billion disaster-relief package, which has been attached to the latest short-term “continuing resolution” needed to keep the federal government open.
The overall relief package, nearly double the amount requested in November by the White House to aid communities recently damaged by hurricanes and wildfires, comes after Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said last week there was no “plan B” for the state's citrus industry without federal assistance.
“Today's announcement of proposed emergency funding for Florida agriculture is the first bit of good news we've heard in months,” Putnam said in a prepared statement Tuesday.
If the package passes the U.S. House on Wednesday, it then would go to the Senate for consideration.
Putnam and Gov. Rick Scott have pushed Florida's congressional delegation to attach assistance for the citrus industry to post-storm relief packages.
“I am glad to say we finally cleared the first major hurdle by securing this funding in the latest disaster supplemental bill,” U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, a Republican who is the only Floridian on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, announced late Monday.
The Florida agriculture industry, which Putnam's department estimated took a $2.5 billion hit from Hurricane Irma, was left out of two earlier disaster-relief packages approved by Congress.
Florida is expected to get a large part of the money for farmers, with crop losses covered for citrus growers.
The biggest parts of the relief package are $27.6 billion that would go to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster-relief account and $27.8 billion for community development block grants that could be used toward flood prevention and infrastructure repairs.
Another $12.11 billion would go to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to repair damage from the natural disasters and to bulk up facilities from future risk, including $537 million for flood control and coastal repairs.
Another $3.99 billion would help public and private schools handling displaced students.
Florida citrus growers, including many in the southwestern part of the state who were hit hard, incurred an estimated $761 million in damage from Irma. However, that estimate from early October is expected to top $1 billion as flood damage to trees continues and as harvest numbers drop.
U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., said the funding will help the industry, which before Irma had been fighting citrus greening disease and is now on pace for its lowest harvest since the 1944-1945 growing season.
“We finally reached a deal that will help Florida farmers recover from the storm with $2.6 billion and prevent these jobs from going overseas,” Ross said in a prepared statement. “While we still have a long road ahead, I'm glad that Florida citrus will have a fighting chance.”
Also Wednesday, the Florida Citrus Commission will discuss shifting about $556,000 from reserves --- nearly matching the amount in its reserves as of Oct. 31 --- to cover programs in the current fiscal year.