Florida Legislature has many hurricane issues to consider

Author: Joe Reedy / AP

Storms are a major priority on the Florida Legislature’s agenda this year following Hurricane Irma’s rampage across most of the state. Lawmakers will consider proposals ranging from making evacuations more efficient to helping the devastated citrus industry.

The 60-day session opened last Tuesday with the House of Representatives and Senate taking different approaches. The House is concentrating on storm preparations and recovery efforts while he Senate is focusing on economic damage. Hurricanes have hit the state the past two years following a more than decade-long lull. Florida is also handling an influx of Puerto Ricans fleeing the devastation Hurricane Maria unleashed on their island.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran formed a select committee on hurricanes last September following Irma, which knocked out power for millions across most of the state, destroyed homes and disrupted lives. The 21-member committee will vote on Tuesday on nearly 80 recommendations to refer to committees for legislation.

Rep. Jay Trumbull, Republican from Panama City, recommended that state transportation officials study how to strategically locate petroleum distribution centers so that residents are less likely to face gasoline shortages before and after storms.

The committee as a whole would like to direct the Public Service Commission to assess strengthening power grids, including placing more lines underground, to avoid some of the outages caused by hurricanes.

Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, a Republican from Saint Augustine, has recommended stressing shorter evacuation options as part of community education efforts. That would be welcomed by Jan Wesner Childs of Cocoa Beach. It took Childs and her husband, Mark, 12 hours, rather than the normal seven, to get from Cocoa Beach to Tallahassee to reach safety.

“There has to be a better way of communicating what to do instead of just, ‘Get out,’” she said.

Both chambers also have bills that would make backup generators mandatory at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. The bills were filed after 14 residents died at a nursing home just outside Ft. Lauderdale when power was out at the facility in the aftermath of Irma.

Republican Rep. Danny Burgess from Zephyrhills has suggested forming a statewide registry of special needs shelters and another listing the state’s more vulnerable residents during a storm.

Senate President Joe Negron’s biggest post-Irma priority is helping out the citrus industry through either tax cuts or other financial aid. State officials estimate that Irma caused $2.5 billion in agricultural damage overall.

“The citrus industry was on the verge of having its best year in a decade when the storm hit and at a point when it was just getting back on its feet,” he said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that Irma caused $50 billion in total damages from the Caribbean to Florida. State officials though have yet to issue their estimates on total costs. The state’s Office of Insurance Regulation on its website estimates that $7.21 billion in property damage claims have been filed.

Florida also is dealing with an estimated 300,000 residents from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, with most relocating to Orlando or South Florida. State and federal agencies are still grasping the scope of how many residents have come to the state, especially in schools. Gov. Rick Scott on Friday announced renewed efforts to identify more housing and job needs for those displaced.

Rep. Bob Cortes of Altamonte Springs has made multiple trips to the island since the storm and said the biggest problem hampering recovering is getting additional supplies. The Republican also noted that all the storms from last year provided a huge snapshot on how devastating they can be.

“There will always be a storm if it is a year or five years,” Cortes said, adding that “we have to always be prepared and make sure what happened in Puerto Rico doesn’t happen here.”

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