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$800 million in disaster aid to farmers hit by hurricanes

FILE- In this Sept. 20, 2018, file photo, damaged tobacco plants by Hurricane Florence stand unharvested in fields near Fremont, N.C. The federal government is sending $800 million in aid to farmers in four southern states that were most devastated last year by hurricanes Michael and Florence. The $800 million in aid will be distributed as block grants to communities in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.
FILE- In this Sept. 20, 2018, file photo, damaged tobacco plants by Hurricane Florence stand unharvested in fields near Fremont, N.C. The federal government is sending $800 million in aid to farmers in four southern states that were most devastated last year by hurricanes Michael and Florence. The $800 million in aid will be distributed as block grants to communities in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. AP Photo

The federal government announced $800 million in aid Friday to farmers in three southern states that were devastated by last year's hurricanes.

Nearly half that money will go to Florida, where timber farmers suffered catastrophic losses when Hurricane Michael came ashore in October 2018 and destroyed 2.8 million acres of commercially grown trees.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the funding also will help Alabama and Georgia cover hurricane losses in the timber, cattle and poultry industries.

The money, which will be distributed as block grants to communities, is part of a $3 billion disaster relief package authorized by Congress earlier this year to help communities recovering from wildfires, flooding, tornadoes and hurricanes.

"Natural disasters dealt producers some hefty blows in the past couple of years," a statement from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue says. "While we can't make producers whole, we can give them a helping hand to get back on their feet and prepare for next year's planting and harvest."

Florida's share is expected to top $380 million, while $347 million is headed to Georgia, where the timber industry also suffered significant losses. Alabama gets $25 million.

While the announcement by federal officials referenced Hurricane Florence, the state hardest hit by that storm — North Carolina — was not among the immediate beneficiaries being announced on Friday. North Carolina and federal officials were still negotiating over the terms of the aid package, U.S. Farm Service Agency Administrator Richard Fordyce told The Associated Press.

The remaining money, more than $40 million, could end up helping farmers in the Tar Heel State who were hit hard by Hurricane Florence.

The financial help is especially welcome in Florida's panhandle, where the timber industry suffered $1.3 billion in losses. Much of that timber is rotting in denuded forests partly because many farmers did not have the resources to harvest logs. In order to for them to reforest their land, farmers will have to invest thousands of dollars to clear their property of debris.

Unlike other farmers whose crops can be insured, timber growers are usually on their own.

"Although it won't make forest landowners whole, it will make a tremendous difference in their ability to begin recovery and move forward with clean-up and reforestation," said Alan Shelby, the executive vice president of the Florida Forestry Association.

Farmers have been waiting for relief for months, and federal officials said they hoped to finalize contracts by Thanksgiving and release money to the states soon after.

"In the coming weeks, our priority will be moving this funding forward, so that timber producers can have checks in hand and trees in the ground," Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said.

Hurricane Michael ploughed through the Florida Panhandle as a Category 5 storm, the strongest ever recorded to hit the region, before pummeling Georgia and the Carolinas. It destroyed thousands of homes and battered coastal and rural communities, many still trying to recover a year later.

Weeks earlier, Hurricane Florence whipped through North Carolina and deluged the region with flooding rains.

Steve Troxler, the agriculture commissioner for North Carolina, said negotiations with federal officials will continue so his state's farmers get their share of aid.

"About 70% of the federal funding was earmarked for a timber program that won't help our farmers," he said, "because it stipulates that the funding cover timber that was damaged beyond repair."

While the state had significant timber losses, Troxler said, the damage did not meet the funding guidelines set by federal officials.

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