Anyone who surveys the massive devastation caused by Hurricane Michael across a large swath of Northwest Florida communities is shocked by the enormity of the damage to thousands of families, homes, neighborhoods, businesses, and to life itself in this wonderful region of our state. It took just a few hours for this powerful storm to leave behind a twisted trail of tragedy that will require many years of work to return to normalcy, if that's even possible.

This is a part of Florida where very independent people take pride in their commitment to the value of an honest day’s labor and being good neighbors. Many were already working hard to maintain very modest lives. I've toured many of the damaged communities and neighborhoods, and I know the tremendous loss of property, infrastructure, jobs, and facilities has become an overwhelming problem that will hit them especially hard. As normal life goes on in the rest of Florida, and significant progress has been made, we cannot afford to sit back and think the problem will take care of itself. It won’t.

If Hurricane Michael had slammed a major urban area of Florida, it would remain a high-profile top priority issue statewide. But portions of the Panhandle region that have been battered include places like Panama City, Bristol, Hosford, Two Egg, Blountstown, Wewahitchka, Port St. Joe, Altha, Eastpoint, Midway and lots of other small towns many Floridians have never heard of. But we need to keep those names and needs top of mind – in Florida and nationally.

After Hurricane Andrew slammed into southern Miami-Dade County in late August 1992, Gov. Lawton Chiles and a bipartisan legislature convened a special legislative session in December for one purpose: recovery and rebuilding from Andrew.

We can’t wait for the 2019 regular session of the Legislature to address these needs. So, let’s concentrate on assessing and then addressing the needs – in a special legislative session that shows all of Florida and its leadership team care about our Panhandle and Big Bend region. In the special session we will have to address critical needs that local governments cannot do. Some of their needs are housing, repair/replacement of utility infrastructure, the significant loss of jobs, the tremendous damage to hospitals, and the availability of basic necessities like food and water.

I know my friends and colleagues in the Florida Legislature - both House and Senate - will embrace the challenge of ensuring our heavily damaged region remains a shared priority for assistance and attention. Along with other legislators of this region, from Tallahassee westward to Pensacola, I am hopeful we will unite in outreach to the leadership to begin planning now for how best to help Northwest Florida recover in the new post-Michael reality. This threatens to darken every day of the many people hurt by the storm's impact.

In the next few weeks, even as the immediate work continues for debris removal, restoration of power, sustaining lives, and overall damage assessment, we must begin formulating a smart, strong, sensitive and strategic plan to provide the assistance most needed to promote full long-term recovery of the region – and to protect the rest of our great state when the next major storm inevitably arrives.

The best and most effective opportunity to directly address the ongoing need and substantive assistance to meet it should be to convene a special session of the Florida Legislature after the election, perhaps even as an extension of the organizational session. At that time, or soon after, we would be properly working together – not as urban or rural lawmakers, and not as Democrats or Republicans. Instead, we will be working as Floridians, united in a purpose and principle that demands our attention and action. The people we serve deserve this highest level of priority – and it's the best way for us to ensure hurricane victims do not also become political victims.

State Sen. Bill Montford (D- Tallahassee) represents the 3rd district, encompassing Franklin, Calhoun, Gadsden, Gulf, Hamilton, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Taylor, and Wakulla counties,