Rubio’s Disaster-Relief Focus Now on Helping Eastern Shipbuilding with Its Giant USCG Contract

By NANCY SMITH Sunshine State News

A U.S. Coast Guard offshore patrol cutter

A U.S. Coast Guard offshore patrol cutter

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote Friday on a multibillion-dollar disaster aid package for all kinds of recent disasters, including tornadoes, wildfires, and Hurricanes Florence, Michael, Harvey, and Irma.

It’s likely to be the largest disaster-aid package ever, thanks to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and Congressman Matt Gaetz,  R-Fla.

Last week, riding with President Trump aboard Air Force One, somewhere between Washington and Panama City, Rubio and Gaetz convinced the president to break all the rules and fatten the disaster package to take into account Hurricane Michael’s virtually unheard of 155-mph winds.  

“Today I’m doing the most allowed by law to support the people of Florida,” Trump said at the rally a few hours after Air Force One landed. “Because of the severity of the storm — Category 5 — we will have the federal government pay for 90 percent of the cost in many circumstances.”

Marco Rubio and Donald Trump

Marco Rubio and Donald TrumpA brilliant maneuver. Trump doesn’t take Florida without the Panhandle. Read POLITICO Florida’s May 9 story to see exactly how Rubio and Gaetz worked their magic.

There’s a lot more riding on this disaster aid package for Northwest Florida than paying for debris cleanup. Rubio knows that.

Hurricane Michael’s path brought its eye wall with category 5 winds over Panama City, Fla.-based Eastern Shipbuilding Group‘s, Allanton shipyard. The yard is located about 15 miles east of Eastern’s headquarters and main yard in Panama City, and just a few miles west of Mexico Beach, where Michael made landfall. 

The business was damaged at just the wrong time.

In late 2016, Eastern landed a $10.5 billion contract from the U.S. Coast Guard, beating out shipbuilders in Louisiana and Maine to build two dozen new U.S. Coast Guard offshore patrol cutters (OPC). Both Eastern and Bay County officials at the time called the contract “a game changer,” something that would create as many as 2,000 new jobs for a shipbuilder that prioritizes hiring veterans.

Matt Gaetz

Matt GaetzAcquisition of the offshore patrol cutters is the Coast Guard’s highest investment priority. The USCG claims OPC will provide “a capability bridge” between the national security cutter, which patrols the open ocean in the most demanding maritime environments, and the fast-response cutter, which serves closer to shore. The ships will feature state-of-the-market technology and will replace the service’s 270-foot and 210-foot medium-endurance cutters, which are becoming increasingly expensive to maintain and operate. The first OPC is scheduled for delivery in 2021.

Under the contract, Eastern could potentially build 25 boats for the Coast Guard over the next 20 years.

Nick Iacovella, Rubio’s national press secretary, told Sunshine State News Rubio is directing much of his energy not only to see the president’s full disaster relief bill come to a timely vote, but to make sure one particular line stays in the bill: a critical provision to allow Eastern Shipbuilding to revisit its contract with the Coast Guard. The contract is the biggest in USCG history, has a vital safety component for the nation and a significant economic impact for the Panhandle area. But the initial contract didn’t take into account the damage from Hurricane Michael.

“Under the old contract we were prohibited from negotiating for additional money for increased costs,” Admiral Bob Papp, president of Washington operations for Eastern, told the Panama City News-Herald.

That meant that after Hurricane Michael, they would be unable to negotiate with the Coast Guard to help cover a slew of new costs associated with both the project and the hurricane, such as the damage from the Category 5 storm that needed repairs, the prolonged schedule and the “skyrocketing” costs of labor, Papp said. The $10 billion contract didn’t account for a natural disaster.

Rubio doesn’t think that will happen, says Iacovella. Happily, last week Vice President Mike Pence signaled Republicans are willing to drop objections to the Puerto Rico money in the interest of getting money to the people who need it.

At the end of last week the parties were still fighting over an additional $3 billion the package includes for flooding in the Midwest and funding for Puerto Rico. Trump opposes more hurricane aid for Puerto Rico, and that has the Democrats up in arms. Neither party wants to give an inch, and the whole bill could go belly up.

Rubio doesn’t think that will happen, says Iacovella. Happily, last week Vice President Mike Pence signaled Republicans are willing to drop objections to the Puerto Rico money in the interest of getting money to the people who need it.

In a video last week, Rubio said, “We want to make sure that (Coast Guard cutter) project stays on target and continues to feed jobs because Northwest Florida desperately needs those jobs to recover. We’re very hopeful. Cautiously optimistic, that next week can be a very good week.”

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith