DOERUN — Georgians are one step closer to receiving disaster aid funds but there is no clear timeline for when the money will flow.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, U.S. Senator David Perdue, Georgia Secretary of Agriculture Gary Black and Congressmen Sanford Bishop and Austin Scott held a roundtable meeting at the Davis Family Farm Friday in Doerun to celebrate President Donald Trump signing the $19.9 billion disaster aid bill on June 6.
Kemp said that he was grateful to everyone who pushed to get the disaster relief bill passed so Georgia farmers could get help with recovering from storms such as Hurricane Michael.
The hurricane, which battered its way through southwest Georgia Oct. 10, 2018, decimated nearly every section of the area’s agriculture industry.
“We’re grateful to Secretary (Sonny) Perdue and everything he was doing behind the scenes,” Kemp said. “Our congressional delegation hung together (giving) bipartisan support to keep this issue on the front burner… We have more work to do to fight for flexibility for Secretary Perdue and Commissioner Black to make sure they can get the money out quickly. We’re very grateful but we’re not going to take our eye off the ball.”
Scott pointed out that every member of the Georgia delegation worked together to get the bill passed.
“Every member of the Georgia delegation in the House and the Senate, Democrat and Republican, voted yes on the final piece of legislation,” Scott said.
Scott said that he hopes the United States Department of Agriculture will be granted the ability to grant emergency loans if things happen prior to a planting season to help farmers get their crops in the ground.
“When you go past a field that’s not planted, that’s not just a farmer that didn’t get to plant the field,” Scott said. “That’s a cotton gin that isn’t going to be running the cotton that would have been grown there. And if the farmers in rural Georgia aren’t making money, nobody in rural Georgia is making money. It’s the genesis of our economy.”
Bishop agreed, adding that, from the appropriations side, he wants to find a way to have a reserve in place so there isn’t as much of a wait for funds should something similar happen again.
“Every business, every family, every family has that,” agreed Senator Perdue. “We don’t have that (on the federal level). We have a FEMA reserve fund but it’s just not adequate to deal with these types of catastrophes.”
Senator Perdue said that they need to solve the budget process as well, saying that, “Every dime that we just spent here is borrowed money.”
While many of the elected officials were happy that the bill was passed and lauded the collaborative, bipartisan efforts at the state level, they also expressed frustration that it had taken so long.
The bill was initially held up in Congress by Democrats over aid to Puerto Rico, then was held up by conservative Republicans who wanted a recorded vote rather than a voice vote.
Senator Perdue said that he appreciated the farmers’ patience.
“This was embarrassing and I apologize representing the United States Senate,” Perdue said. “This took eight months. That’s ridiculous. The longest disaster relief we’d had in the United States was two months. That was Hurricane Sandy in 2013. This took us eight months and it wasn’t anything but partisan politics.”
“We need to do better,” said Scott. “We’re a very generous country. We help a lot of people, and then when it was my district that needed it, to not be able to get the help in a timely manner was extremely, extremely frustrating. I know the people that were asking for the help, they wouldn’t have asked for the help if they didn’t need the help.”
Bishop said that the daily communications with farmers about the need for relief, “kept us fighting to make sure that we could try to get this ball across the goal line.
“We were pushed past planting season. That means that operational loans weren’t able to be satisfied, which means that the lenders were very, very nervous, as well as the farmers. The communities that were hit that are supported by agriculture were really devastated, so the total disaster package goes to all of those aspects… We hope that can be designated quickly so that we can get back to business.”
Both Secretary Perdue and Senator Perdue praised President Trump for his role is getting the bill passed.
“Political games got played and that’s unfortunate,” said Secretary Perdue. “But it’s all behind us now. We’re going to implement and execute and deploy this money as soon as possible.”
Now that the bill has been passed and signed, the next challenge will be getting the funds disseminated.
Secretary Perdue said that while they are going to be working to quickly get farmers much needed funds, “‘quickly’ is relative."
“We’re going to do it as fast as we can,” he said. “I don’t want to put a date on it. We can probably get these crop productions out sooner than the timber and the pecans.”
He said that he was hopeful that the process would take weeks, rather than months.
Kemp said that the exact amount Georgia will be getting was not settled on, since the monies will be going to multiple states to cover multiple disasters.
Scott said that $3 billion of the total relief package was set aside for all of the states impacted by storms in 2018.
“They’ll have to work through where the losses were and what those total figures are,” he said.
While Kemp said that Black already has a loan program ready to go once the disaster relief monies have been given to the state, none of the roundtable participants had a timeline for when farmers might see the funds.
Scott said that the monies should be doled out through a combination of Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program (WHIP) grants, which will go toward crops with traditional crop insurance, and block grants, which will go towards crops, such as timber and pecans, that don’t have an insurance program.
Secretary Perdue said that however the funds are given out, it will require flexibility.
Farmers are looking forward to being able to pay off banks who extended loans and chemical and seed companies who have extended credit so farmers could get crops in the ground.
“This isn’t just a check to a farmer,” said Dick Minor, past president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Grower’s Association. “This is a check to spur on rural America.”
The total fruit and vegetable losses after Michael totaled $483 million last year, according to Black.
Bart Davis, who hosted the event, was optimistic about the news of the disaster relief bill passing.
“This might be the best week in Georgia agriculture ever,” he said. “We got the disaster bill passed and we’re going to get some rain.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Sanford Bishop as a State Senator. He is a U.S. congressman.