Florida’s governor and Legislature promised a dizzying array of fixes following the devastation of last year’s hurricanes. But heading into a new storm season, the state has enacted only a few changes – the largest aimed at protecting seniors in nursing homes.
Friday’s official start of hurricane season also arrives as the state continues to feel the effects of two storms last year. Hurricane Irma ripped across the state last September and was blamed for 84 deaths in Florida, as well as over $8.6 billion in property damage. Hurricane Maria, which decimated Puerto Rico last October, led to mass relocations to the Sunshine State.
After having no significant storms from 2006 to 2015, three storms have made landfall in the state the past two years.
“As hard as it was last year, people worked together well,” Gov. Rick Scott said recently at the Governor’s Hurricane Conference in West Palm Beach. “I think almost everyone is pleased with debris removal, but it is the rebuilding that takes time.”
The Florida House of Representative’s Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness issued 78 recommendations over the past year, with 27 being acted upon, mostly as appropriations in the state budget. The recommendations ranged from ensuring generators and three days of fuel in nursing homes and assisted living facilities to creating a disaster preparedness sales tax holiday.
Priorities for most people remain ensuring access to fuel and transportation, following a massive and chaotic evacuation during Irma that left residents scrambling for fuel and clogging Florida’s highways. Scott directed the state’s Department of Transportation to better identify larger gas stations along evacuation routes and improve delivery of fuel to those areas.
Legislators recommended having the state consider using one-way traffic flows on major highways, but Scott, citing state transportation officials, instead backed the use of highway shoulders to relieve congestion. Authorities allowed drivers to use shoulders several times during Irma.
Craig Fugate, who was the state’s top emergency official under Gov. Jeb Bush and later headed FEMA under President Barack Obama, said one way to ease congestion during evacuations is pointing people to shelters closer to their homes.
“If you look at last year we had a lot of people driving long distances. We have so many new residents that we forgot past lessons,” he said. “How do you keep them engaged and prepared and pass on the lessons that we learned the hard way between the quiet and active periods?”
One way could be through improvements in forecasting from the National Hurricane Center. Director Ken Graham said new public advisories are “absolutely huge” for the work emergency managers do ahead of any storm. Those include the expected time for tropical storm-force winds to arrive onshore and maps that show possible storm surge.
“It’s about understanding the risk, it’s understanding if you’re in an evacuation zone, and understanding you may not have far to go to get away from that risk,” Graham said.
The state also has named a new top emergency management official, Wes Maul, following the resignation after seven years of Bryan Koon, who said he would return to the private sector.
Maul served as the department’s chief of staff for 17 months but had no other prior emergency management experience. Maul declined to answer questions about his level of experience, but the governor’s office has cited Maul’s work at the department so far – including responses to storms and mass shootings – as an indicator that Maul is up to the task.
The governor is confident in Maul, Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said.
Graham said his office’s job with any new officials “is going to be to educate. … We’re going to spend time spinning them up on the hurricane season, spinning them up on the science.”
Scott, a Republican, is leaving office due to term limits. Florida has not been hit with a hurricane the year of a gubernatorial election since 1964. The state’s response during a storm could quickly become a campaign issue for governor and the U.S. Senate as Scott is challenging three-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in November.
Fugate said no matter the year – or the stakes – the mission remains the same.
“They have to be ready for stuff you would expect, but also be prepared for what could happen,” he said. “We have our planning assumptions, but you also have to adjust to what the public is doing.”
(Associated Press writer Jennifer Kay in West Palm Beach, Florida, contributed to this report.)
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