Friday, September 29, 2017

September 2017 Month in Review - State News

By far, the top story in state government this month was Hurricane Irma, which made landfall in the Florida Keys on Sunday, September 10, as a Category 4 storm with 130 mph winds. By all accounts (here’s one), its wind speed and evacuations were orders of magnitude worse than some of the biggest hurricanes in recent decades.

As one who experienced it first-hand, I think Gov. Rick Scott deserves praise for his decisive leadership and the state’s overall response before, during and after the event.

I’ll begin this post with a review of the Governor’s actions related to the hurricane. Then I’ll share some top stories, editorials, and commentaries.

Gov. Scott’s leadership during Hurricane Irma

On Monday, September 4, Gov. Scott declared a state of emergency for all 67 Florida counties.

The next day, he asked President Trump to declare a “pre-landfall emergency” for the state to “provide important resources and assistance from the federal government” and “free up funding sources for emergency protective measures such as shoring up beach dunes, building emergency berms and planning for potential evacuations.”

He also activated the National Guard to assist with Irma preparedness, directed the suspension of tolls across the state to speed up evacuation, and ordered state offices to be closed Friday, encouraging state employees to volunteer to support the state’s emergency shelter mobilization efforts. He also began issuing daily Irma updates. In a news conference in North Naples, he urged Floridians to “prepare for the worst.”

On Thursday, September 7, he ordered all public schools, state colleges and universities, and state offices to close from  Friday through Monday, “to ensure we have every space available for sheltering and staging.” He also announced actions being taken to get more fuel to gas stations, and activated the state’s Disaster Fund to support individuals impacted by the Hurricane.

With the storm track making it clear that Florida’s west coast was in the line of the storm, on Friday, September 8, he urged those in evacuation zones along coastal counties from Manatee to Collier to be prepared to locate to the closest available shelter within their counties if they did not evacuate by noon the next day. I remember it well. The evacuation zone was extended as far east as Airport-Pulling Road in some areas!

On September 10, as Irma made landfall in the Lower Keys, Scott asked President Trump for and received, a Major Disaster Declaration for every county in Florida. This authorized federal funding to flow directly to Floridians impacted by Hurricane Irma, including families in Collier County. It also authorized federal reimbursement to local communities and the state government for emergency protective measures and debris removal.

Scott also publicly shared the “incredible outpouring of support” that had been deployed to Florida from twenty-eight states and Washington D.C. to aid in the response and recovery.

The Governor’s leadership continued as recovery began. On September 18, he directed every county impacted by Irma to “aggressively prioritize debris clean-up, and on the 19th, he directed VISIT FLORIDA to “launch an aggressive new marketing campaign to highlight Florida following Hurricane Irma.”

On September 20, Scott announced that the state was awarded “federal Dislocated Worker Grants to provide temporary employment to Floridians affected” by the hurricane. On the 25th, he activated 400 National Guard members to help with residential debris removal in Monroe County and directed the Florida Dept of Emergency Management to expedite delivery of tarps for patching roofs.

Read more on the Governor’s website at flgov.com.

While the Governor’s leadership was commendable, the hurricane made apparent several issues that our state government must address in the months ahead. And there was some non-Irma related state news this month, as well. Here are some articles of note:

Top stories - Irma

  • Widespread shelter problems during Irma raise questions about Florida’s readiness. A 2016 Division of Emergency Management report said Florida has safe emergency shelter capacity for about 960,000 evacuees. At least 5.6 million Floridians were ordered to evacuate during Irma, though only 5 percent to 10 percent of evacuees typically go to public shelters. Tampa Bay Times
  • Florida’s bridges vulnerable to damage from hurricanes. Although Florida has one of the best inspection records in the country, thousands of bridges, some of them crucial arteries, are still considered vulnerable to a strong hurricane’s storm surge and winds. Naples Daily News
  • Eight Dead From Sweltering Nursing Home as Florida Struggles After Irma. Florida requires nursing homes to ensure emergency power in a disaster as well as food, water, staffing and 72 hours of supplies. NYTimes

    • Related: Nursing Home Deaths Prompt New Rules by Florida Governor. NYTimes
    • Related: 11th resident of South Florida nursing home dies; another lawsuit filed. Naples Daily News
    • Related:  Florida governor’s office deleted critical messages related to post-hurricane nursing home deaths. Washington Post
    • Related:  Governor responds to controversy over deleted nursing home voicemails. WPBF News
  • Gwen Graham accurately says Florida’s coastal and stormwater infrastructure not prepared for climate change. The Democratic candidate for governor is citing a report card given out by the oldest engineering society in the country. Politifact Florida
  • Rick Scott’s hurricane response boosts potential Senate run. His preparedness has impressed Republicans and some Democrats, all of whom have long expected Scott to challenge incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson next year. The Hill

Top stories - other news

  • Repeal of Florida’s tax on services reverberates, 30 years later. Florida won’t collect enough tax revenue over the next three years to pay its mounting bills – especially for Medicaid, which now consumes nearly one-third of the state’s budget. The future could mean cuts to schools, hospitals and treatment programs, fewer state workers, and higher fees for services. Tampa Bay Times
  • Education leaders seek $21.4 billion for schools next year. The Florida Board of Education approved a 2018–19 budget request that includes a $200 per-student boost in the K–12 system, increased funding for the 28 state colleges and construction money for public schools, colleges, and universities.  Orlando Sentinel 
  • Deadline for public to submit amendments to state Constitution extended to Oct. 6. The deadline was extended because commissioners wanted to give more time after Hurricane Irma blew through the state. Miami Herald 

  • Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection seeks $50 million to revive Florida Forever conservation program. Its 2018–19 budget proposals also include $50 million for programs to improve water quality and drinking water quantity, and $50 million to support state parks. Gov. Scott will propose his 2018–19 budget later this year, with the 60-day regular session beginning in January. Orlando Sentinel
  • Gov. Scott calls for $50 million and new legislation to fight opioid abuse. The proposal, which includes a three-day limit on initial prescriptions for opioids, will be one of his top priorities in the upcoming legislative session. Sun Sentinel
  • Army Corps of Engineers will commit to, expedite Lake Okeechobee southern reservoir, after twice asking for more time to commit. Before it can break ground on the reservoir, it has to complete a study, which was originally planned to launch in 2020. TCPalm
  • Lee County approves deal to buy Edison Farms conservation land, whose water retention capacity benefits the entire region in times of flooding. The nearly 4,000 acres will be preserved, after decades in which scenarios for its future included an interstate interchange, being drained for development of 3,000 or more housing units, a spring training baseball park, or the route for a  new north-south thoroughfare through Lee County. News-Press
  • Nonprofit group files records request for info about Florida online voter registration. With this month’s implementation deadline, the group wants to make sure the online voter registration system will handle the flurry of registration that can happen before an election deadline. Tampa Bay Times
  • Bonuses based on teacher test scores violate civil rights, lawsuit alleges. Seven teachers from South Florida are joining the Florida Education Association in suing the state over its Best and Brightest teacher bonus program, which ties bonuses to teachers’ college entrance exam scores. Tampa Bay Times

Top editorials and commentaries

  • Editorial: State lawmakers must act to protect vulnerable residents from natural disasters. As we’ve learned in the aftermath of Irma, there are serious shortcomings in what the state requires of nursing homes and senior-living facilities. Treasure Coast Newspapers via Naples Daily News
  • Commentary: Post-Irma, conservation agenda more vital than ever. Collier County commissioners [should] revive the Conservation Collier program and move forward with a Conservation Collier-specific referendum for the public to approve in fall 2018. In addition, our local elected state representatives should take a leadership role in implementing Amendment 1. By Rob Moher, President and CEO - Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Naples Daily News
  • Commentary: Stop exploitation of insurance system where it starts. When a major storm hits our state, many distressed homeowners will turn over their insurance policy benefits to a lawyer, roofer or contractor who offers the hope of a better settlement. Sens. Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) and Dorothy Hukill (R-Port Orange) have co-sponsored a bill that … limits the ability of attorneys and contractors to squeeze the most dollars out of a claim solely for their benefit. By Jason Wolf, partner - Koch Parafinczuk Wolf Susen, Fort Lauderdale, Sun Sentinel

Stay tuned for my next post, where I’ll report on September’s local Irma-related efforts and other top local government and school district news.

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