Florida Politics

Lawmakers approved more repair funds after Irma, but policy changes? Not so much.

Nearly 700 shelters were opened throughout the state as Hurricane Irma approached Florida last summer.
Nearly 700 shelters were opened throughout the state as Hurricane Irma approached Florida last summer. AP

Before legislators convened for their annual session two months ago, leaders nodded strongly to the most recent tragedy in the state — the deaths of a dozen seniors in a Broward County nursing home — and vowed to address inadequacies in the state’s hurricane response. A report released in January included 78 recommendations, ranging from evacuations to healthcare, aimed at shoring up Florida’s disaster preparedness before this year’s hurricane season.

But after the shellshocked final weeks of session — in large part consumed by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in which 17 died — many of those recommendations were not addressed before lawmakers left the Capitol for the year.

“Unfortunately there’s things that always happen last-minute and we got a little sidetracked,” said Miami Republican and speaker pro tempore Jeanette Nunez, who chaired a committee examining the state’s hurricane response. She said Parkland — “rightfully so” — became a legislative priority late in the session, though she laid the blame in part on Senate inaction as well. “I was slightly disappointed that the Senate didn’t take some of these recommendations.”

Dozens of the report’s findings were unaddressed or died in the legislative process, including a study on preparing the electrical grid for future storms, requiring sign-language interpreters in emergency broadcasts and using railroads to help evacuate residents and transport extra fuel to areas with shortages.

A bill that would have consolidated responsibilities for special needs shelters under state oversight and slightly increased enforcement of nursing homes’ emergency management plans also died before passage, though a similar healthcare bill without those provisions passed both the House and Senate.

Irma-Nursing Home Deaths
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, touted several hurricane-related actions, including rules requiring generators in long-term care facilities, after 11 residents of a Hollywood nursing home died in the sweltering heat of hurricane-induced power outages. Amy Beth Bennett AP

“We wanted to consolidate that so it would be more of a uniform policy,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto. “Unfortunately, that particular bill, for whatever reason, didn’t move.”

He was among a handful of legislators, including Nunez, who said some bills were left just shy of the finish line in the Senate and suggested the other chamber might have had different priorities. But in a statement after the budget passed, Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, touted several hurricane-related actions, including hundreds of millions in funding, rules requiring generators in long-term care facilities, and tax cuts or exemptions for hurricane recovery and future supplies in the legislature’s tax package.

“I am proud of the Senate for conducting a thorough review of these critical issues and pleased that the Legislature passed a comprehensive recovery and preparedness package,” he said.

Katie Betta, Negron’s spokeswoman, also rejected House legislators’ suggestion that the Senate took insufficient action.

Lawmakers did approve some policy changes, chief among them the ratification of two rules requiring generators in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Nunez said it was the most clamored-for reform after Irma hit.

But most of the successfully adopted recommendations were done as budget appropriations rather than policy changes — particularly for the state’s agricultural industry. More than $270 million in the budget that was passed Sunday addressed hurricane expenses, including more than $40 million for agricultural storm damage, $90 million for federal disaster recovery grants for communities, $126 million in assistance for students displaced from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and $11.2 million for beach repairs.

This wreckage was typical of the damage that Hurricane Irma did in the Lower Keys. Katie Atkins Keynoter

“Sometimes it’s just easier to throw money at a problem than it is to take a thoughtful and diligent approach to policy making,” Nunez said.

Lawmakers also granted tens of millions of dollars to the Florida Keys, which took the brunt of the storm in Florida, okaying nearly $6 million for its new emergency operations center, $15 million in affordable housing and $5 million for sewage and water projects.

“Some folks have what we call hurricane amnesia, [but] the Keys are very much in recovery mode,” said Rep. Holly Raschein, who represents the area. “I got a very fair amount considering our state’s priorities and the priorities of [my district].”

Nunez concurred that people who were not in the hardest-hit areas moved on quickly from the storm. “This was probably our best effort in terms of trying to get across the finish line,” she said. She added that she remained hopeful future legislators might take up the recommendations in another year.

But the next hurricane season will happen before the Legislature reconvenes next spring.

“Given Florida’s exposure and our risk, unfortunately we’ll see future storms,” Nunez said. “I would hate for something that didn’t get passed for lack of effort to bubble up and people say, ‘You addressed this in recommendation X, Y, Z. … Why didn’t you take this action?’ 

Related stories from Miami Herald