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Associated Press

For Irma vs. Mar-a-Lago, the smart $$ is on Trump’s house

Hurricane Irma is likely to test President Donald Trump‘s longtime boast that his Mar-a-Lago mansion can withstand any storm.

If history is any guide, the smart money this weekend will be on the house.

Strikes by four major hurricanes have done little damage to Mar-a-Lago in the 90 years since cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and her second husband, financier E.F. Hutton, built the 126-room, 62,500-square foot (5,800-square meter) mansion. It cost them $5 million – the equivalent of almost $70 million today.

The 3-acre (1.2 hectare) Palm Beach estate is quite exposed to tropical weather, bisecting a narrow barrier island, flanked by the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean. But the mansion’s walls are 3-feet (1 meter) thick, anchored by steel and concrete beams embedded into coral rock.

“It’s the safest place in the world for a hurricane,” said Anthony Senecal, Trump’s longtime butler and Mar-a-Lago’s unofficial historian, in an interview with The Associated Press last year. “That house ain’t going nowhere. That house has never been seriously damaged. That construction, stop and think about it. There were 300 guys that worked on the outside of that building.”

Jeff Masters, director of the Weather Underground forecasting service, said Thursday that the biggest threat to Mar-a-Lago won’t be Irma’s winds, which could top 140 mph (225 kph) when it reaches Palm Beach. Instead, it will be storm surge, which he said could reach 8 feet (2.4 meters) in a worst-case scenario. An interactive map by Climate Central shows that a more likely 6-foot (1.8-meter) sea rise would put some of the property’s low-lying areas at peril. An 8-foot surge could cause some water damage to the main buildings.

Trump bought the property in 1985, when it was in disrepair, for $10 million, and spent millions refurbishing it before turning it into a club in 1995. The property now boasts 58 bedrooms, 33 bathrooms, a 20,000-square-foot ballroom, tennis and croquet courts and three bomb shelters.

The Trump family business doubled the initiation fee to $200,000 once it became clear that Mar-a-Lago would become the unofficial Winter White House, and the president has spent seven weekends at the resort since his inauguration, mingling with the club’s 500 members, who pay $14,000 in annual dues to belong.

An AP investigation last year showed Trump received a $17 million insurance payment for Mar-a-Lago damage in 2005 after hurricanes Frances, Jeanne and Wilma hit in two years, but he said in an unrelated lawsuit deposition in 2007 that he didn’t know how much was spent on repairs. He conceded to pocketing some of the money.

Senecal told the AP the roof lost some tiles and some trees were flattened. Town of Palm Beach records showed no permits were issued for major repairs during that period.

Bernd Lembke, Mar-a-Lago’s managing director, did not return a call Thursday seeking comment. The Trump Organization issued a statement saying its Florida staff is “taking all of the proper precautions” to protect the property and its employees. Spokeswoman Amanda Miller did not respond to an email seeking specifics.

The first major storm to hit Mar-a-Lago was the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane, which made landfall nearby with 145 mph winds. Just 45 miles (72 kilometers) west, dikes surrounding Lake Okeechobee failed and at least 2,500 people drowned, mostly farmworkers and their families. More than 1,700 buildings near Mar-a-Lago were destroyed. According to the Palm Beach Post, Mar-a-Lago reported damage to a large Roman-style window.

2 Confederate monuments vandalized in Jacksonville

Two Confederate monuments in a Florida city were defaced with red spray paint in one night.

The Florida Times-Union reports that officials discovered the vandalism Wednesday at a 63-foot (19-meter) granite monument dedicated to Confederate soldiers in Jacksonville’s Hemming Park and a statue dedicated to women of the Confederacy in Confederate Park.

The vandalism follows months of debate between local groups over whether the city should remove the Hemming Park monument, which sits on the doorsteps of City Hall in downtown.

Similar fights are erupting around the country. A renewed interest in removing the symbols comes after violent clashes at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, left one person dead and scores injured last month.

Top Florida home insurer, Citizens Insurance, could face big hit from Irma

A decade-long lucky streak of decent weather that helped rescue one of Florida’s biggest home insurers from collapse could come to a wet, violent end if predictions about Hurricane Irma prove true.

The state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. is strong enough to absorb the blow from the monster storm, industry experts say, but all the new claims could punch a hole in its finances, possibly leading to higher premiums in future years.

“Irma will threaten the part of the state where Citizens’ market share is the greatest, directly on the coastline,” said Robert Hartwig, an economist and insurance expert at the University of South Carolina. “Premiums will rise.”

Once a shaky, underfunded company, Citizens has transformed into a model of discipline, flush with money patiently built up over the years.

The company has 218,000 policies in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, according to a March financial report, areas that could get hit hard by Irma. That is 15 percent of total policies in those counties, down from 41 percent just six years ago.

Still, Irma is likely to cost Citizens big money.

Citizens CEO Barry Gilway told his board on Wednesday that despite the insurer being dramatically less exposed, it could still wind up having 100,000 claims after the storm passes. Asked by The Associated Press on Wednesday for a dollar estimate of possible losses, a Citizens spokesman would not give a figure.

Hartwig cited estimates that if all homes insured by Citizens was destroyed, an extreme and unlikely case, the insurer would have to pay out $50 billion to allow owners to rebuild.

Jack Nicholson, director of the Florida Catastrophic Storm Risk Management Center at Florida State University, said the storm could wind up costing $100 billion in insured and uninsured damage for homes and other buildings in Florida. He said he has never seen a storm so powerful.

“We always talk about the big one, a matter of not if but when,” Nicholson said. “This has the potential to be the big one.”

Irma is already ranked as the most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane in recorded history. As it moved across the Caribbean toward Florida on Wednesday, the Category 5 storm ripped open rooftops, flooded streets and knocked out electricity. Meteorologists said Irma could hit the Miami area by early Sunday, then pummel the length of the state as it pushes into the Carolinas.

Florida’s last spate of bad storms came in quick succession in 2004 and 2005, ending with Hurricane Wilma. The insurance industry reeled from the hits. Many private insurers fled the Sunshine State, leaving Citizens to take over their policies.

By 2006, Citizens had a $1.7 billion deficit, meaning it was unable to cover policyholder claims. That was the largest deficit of any U.S. state-run insurer, said USC’s Hartwig. Even a normal hurricane season could have toppled the company, he said, forcing the state to borrow heavily to pay out on policies.

But something unexpected happened as the next few years unfolded. The weather cooperated.

“Mother Nature basically left the state alone for a decade,” said Hartwig, co-director of the Center for Risk and Uncertainty Management at USC’s Darla Moore School of Business.

Spared big payouts, Citizens has been able to hold onto its cash from premiums collected from property owners and to build up a surplus of $7.5 billion. The company has also managed to transfer much of its coverage to many new private insurers.

Citizens now has 453,000 policies, down from a peak 1.5 million in 2012.

Rates were already heading up for many Citizens policyholders, thanks to water damage and lawsuits.

Last month, CEO Gilway said homeowners in Miami-Dade and Broward counties were likely to see 10 percent increases this year. For policyholder in Miami-Dade, Gilway estimated average premiums would rise to $3,219 from $2,926. Broward premiums were set to rise to $2,926 from $2,390.

Insurance expert Lynne McChristian said the Irma forecasts keep changing and that makes it difficult to predict any likely losses to Citizens. But even if Citizens manages to dodge the worst, she noted, the danger remains high given hurricane season still has three months left. Already Hurricane Jose has formed in the Atlantic behind Irma.

“Citizens has money to manage one storm, but what happens if we have another one right after that?” said McChristian, Florida spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group. “We’re in peak season right now.”

Deep-dive: Most Florida flood zone property not insured

As Hurricane Irma bears down on Florida, an Associated Press analysis shows a steep drop in flood insurance across the state, including the areas most endangered by what could be a devastating storm surge.

In just five years, the state’s total number of federal flood insurance policies has fallen by 15 percent, according to Federal Emergency Management Agency data.

Florida’s property owners still buy far more federal flood insurance than any other state — 1.7 million policies, covering about $42 billion in assets — but most residents in hazard zones are badly exposed.

With 1,350 miles of coastline, the most in the continental United States, Florida has roughly 2.5 million homes in hazard zones, more than three times that of any other state, FEMA estimates. And yet, across Florida’s 38 coastal counties, just 42 percent of these homes are covered.

Florida’s overall flood insurance rate for hazard-zone homes is just 41 percent. Fannie Mae ostensibly requires mortgage lenders to make sure property owners buy this insurance to qualify for federally backed loans, and yet in 59 percent of the cases, that insurance isn’t being paid for.

In the counties being under at least partial evacuation orders Wednesday (Collier, Broward, Monroe and Miami-Dade), where 1.3 million houses are estimated to be in flood hazard zones, the percentage is an even lower 34.3 percent.

Nationwide, only half the 10 million properties that need flood insurance have it, said Roy Wright, who runs the National Flood Insurance Program. He told the AP last week that he wants to double the number of policies sold nationally in the near future.

The declines in coverage started after Congress approved a price hike in 2012, making policies more expensive. Maps of some high-risk areas were redrawn, removing a requirement that these homeowners get the insurance. About 7 of 10 homeowners have federally backed mortgages, and if they live in a high-risk area, they still are required to have flood insurance. But many let their policies slip without the lender noticing; loans also get sold and repackaged, paperwork gets lost and new lenders don’t follow up.

FEMA, which is ultimately responsible for enforcing flood insurance requirements, did not respond to an email seeking comment from its Washington office on Wednesday.

The latest forecasts suggest Irma’s most destructive winds could carve up much of Florida’s priciest real estate, damaging properties from the Florida Keys through Jacksonville as it swirls north.

“This could easily be the most costly storm in U.S. history, which is saying a lot considering what just happened two weeks ago,” said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.

Insurance companies are still tallying the damage from Hurricane Harvey’s extended stay over southern Texas in August, but insured losses are estimated at $20 billion, and that’s a fraction of the $65 billion or more in losses due to flooding alone that could have been insured, according to the catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide.

No one is expecting Irma to flood Florida on a similar scale. Harvey sat over Houston for days, dumping up to 50 inches of rain. Irma is moving swiftly and should bring less than a quarter of that to Florida cities.

South Florida also has a better flood control system, the ground is more porous and there aren’t any hills to send water rushing down from above, said Hugh Willoughby, a former research director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and now a professor at Florida International University in Miami.

Still, many Floridians could find themselves with no money for flood repairs, just like people in Houston, where flood coverage dropped by 9 percent since 2012.

If Irma’s eye follows a track just west of Florida’s eastern coast, the initial storm surge could heavily damage the Florida Keys, the cities at the southern tip of Florida’s mainland, Florida City and Homestead, parts of Miami and Miami Beach, and other Atlantic coast cities, said Brian Haus, a professor of ocean sciences at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

The AP analysis shows that the number of flood insurance policies sold in the Keys, Miami, Miami Beach and Homestead has stayed basically steady since 2012, but tiny Florida City has seen a drop of 31 percent. Miami-Dade County overall has seen a 7 percent drop in policies sold, falling from 371,000 in 2012 to 342,000 today.

Just to the north in Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale, the state has seen its biggest drop among major counties, falling 44 percent from 372,000 policies five years ago to 207,000 today. County officials say they don’t track the flood insurance program, leaving that to the cities.

If Irma’s eye moves instead up Florida’s west coast, that would put Tampa, St. Petersburg and other Gulf cities in danger to significant storm surge, Haus said. St. Petersburg has seen an almost 10 percent drop in federal flood policies written in the last five years, while Tampa has seen a 3.5 percent drop, according to the AP analysis.

Rick Scott ‘not downplaying’ Irma’s danger

Gov. Rick Scott isn’t apologizing for trying to get people to be concerned about Hurricane Irma.

Scott said Wednesday he had not seen comments by radio personality Rush Limbaugh, who suggested that the “panic” caused by Hurricane Irma benefits retailers, the media and politicians seeking action on climate change.

The Republican governor, however, said, “I’m not downplaying it, I believe this is a risk.”

During several media appearances during the day Scott emphasized that Hurricane Irma was bigger and stronger than Hurricane Andrew, which caused massive destruction in South Florida in 1992. He strongly urged people to evacuate if asked to do so by local officials.

In the past, Scott has dodged questions on whether climate change is caused by humans, saying that he’s “not a scientist.”

‘This is a buzz saw’: Florida braces for Hurricane Irma

Florida residents picked store shelves clean and long lines formed at gas pumps Wednesday as Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 monster with potentially catastrophic winds of 185 mph, steamed toward the Sunshine State and a possible direct hit on the Miami metropolitan area of nearly 6 million people.

The most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic destroyed homes and flooded streets as it roared through a chain of small islands in the northern Caribbean some 1,000 miles from Florida. Forecasters said Irma could strike the Miami area by early Sunday, then rake the entire length of the state’s east coast and push into Georgia and the Carolinas.

“This thing is a buzz saw,” warned Colorado State University meteorology professor Phil Klotzbach. “I don’t see any way out of it.”

An estimated 25,000 people or more left the Florida Keys after all visitors were ordered to clear out, causing bumper-to-bumper traffic on the single highway that links the chain of low-lying islands to the mainland.

But because of the uncertainty in any forecast this far out, state and local authorities in Miami and Fort Lauderdale held off for the time being on ordering any widespread evacuations there.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott waived tolls on all Florida highways and told people if they were thinking about leaving to “get out now.” But in the same breath, he acknowledged that “it’s hard to tell people where to go until we know exactly where it will go.”

Amid the dire forecasts and the devastating damage done by Hurricane Harvey less than two weeks ago in Houston, some people who usually ride out storms in Florida seemed unwilling to risk it this time.

“Should we leave? A lot of people that I wouldn’t expect to leave are leaving. So, it’s like, ‘Oh, wow!'” said Martie McClain, 66, who lives in the South Florida town of Plantation. Still, she was undecided about going and worried about getting stuck in traffic and running out of gas.

The many construction cranes at sites around South Florida could pose a serious threat if they are toppled.

In Miami, the deputy director of the Building Department, Maurice Pons, said that there about two dozen such cranes in the city alone and that they were built to withstand winds up to 145 mph, but not a Category 5 hurricane.

He said he could “not advise staying in a building next to a construction crane during a major hurricane like Irma.”

As people rushed to buy up water and other supplies, board up their homes with plywood and fill up their cars, Scott declared a state of emergency and asked the governors of Alabama and Georgia to waive trucking regulations so gasoline tankers can get fuel into Florida quickly to ease shortages.

It has been almost 25 years since Florida took a hit from a Category 5 storm. Hurricane Andrew struck just south of Miami in 1992 with winds topping 165 mph (265 kph), killing 65 people and inflicting $26 billion in damage. It was at the time the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history.

“We’ll see what happens,” President Donald Trump said in Washington. “It looks like it could be something that could be not good, believe me, not good.”

Trump’s exclusive Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach — the unofficial Southern White House — sits in the path of the storm.

This is only the second time on Earth since satellites started tracking storms about 40 years ago that one maintained 185 mph winds for more than 24 hours, Colorado State’s Klotzbach said.

University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy said Irma could easily prove the costliest storm in U.S. history.

Jeff Masters, director of the Weather Underground forecasting service, warned that high winds and large storm surges will damage expensive properties from Miami to Charleston, South Carolina.

“If it goes right up the Gold Coast like the current models are saying, then the Gold Coast is going to become the Mud Coast,” Masters said. “That includes Mar-a-Lago.”

While Florida building codes were tightened and enforced more stringently after Andrew, the population since then has grown, coastal development has continued, and climate change has become more pronounced.

Under 2001 rules, housing in most parts of Florida must be built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, meaning winds of up to 129 mph. Miami-Dade and Broward counties have more stringent building codes requiring some structures to withstand Category 4 winds of 146 mph and 140 mph respectively.

As Irma drew closer, Georgia and South Carolina declared a state of emergency. North Carolina officials also kept a close eye on the hurricane.

“It’s just scary, you know? We want to get to higher ground. Never had a Cat 5, never experienced it,” said Michelle Reynolds, who was leaving the Keys as people filled gas cans and workers covered fuel pumps with “out of service” sleeves.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Irma prompts delay in death row inmate’s case

The Florida Supreme Court is delaying court proceedings in the case of a man scheduled to be executed in October.

Lawyers for Michael Ray Lambrix on Wednesday asked for additional time to file motions and court briefings because the attorneys live in the expected path of Hurricane Irma. Attorney General Pam Bondi‘s office objected, saying Irma’s impact was “days away.”

Justices later in the day pushed back the deadlines until the week of Sept. 18.

Gov. Rick Scott has scheduled Lambrix’s execution for Oct. 5.

The 57-year-old Lambrix, also known as Cary Michael Lambrix, was convicted of the 1983 killings of Clarence Moore and Aleisha Bryant. Prosecutors say he killed them after an evening of drinking at his trailer near LaBelle, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) from Fort Myers.

Airlines prepare to cancel flights in Hurricane Irma’s path

Airlines are preparing to cancel Florida flights that are in the path of Hurricane Irma.

The hurricane is expected to reach Florida by the weekend. American Airlines says it will begin shutting down operations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Sarasota and West Palm Beach by Friday afternoon and cancel flights through the weekend.

By Wednesday afternoon, American, United, Delta and JetBlue offered waivers letting customers change travel plans to Florida and the Caribbean without the usual charges for changing a ticket. Dates and covered locations varied.

FlightAware.com reports that about 170 flights, roughly two-thirds of those scheduled, were canceled by late Wednesday afternoon at Luis Munoz Marin Airport International Airport near San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Rains from monster Hurricane Irma begin hitting Puerto Rico

Heavy rain and 185-mph winds lashed the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico’s northeast coast Wednesday as Hurricane Irma roared through Caribbean islands on its way to a possible hit on South Florida.

The strongest Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever measured destroyed homes and flooded streets across a chain of small islands in the northern Caribbean, passing directly over Barbuda and leaving the island of some 1,700 people incommunicado.

France sent emergency food and water rations to the French islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, where Irma ripped off roofs and knocked out all electricity. Dutch marines who flew to three Dutch islands hammered by Irma reported extensive damage but no deaths or injuries.

While France received no immediate reports of casualties, the minister for French overseas territories, Annick Girardin, said: “We have a lot to fear for a certain number of our compatriots who unfortunately didn’t want to listen to the protection measures and go to more secure sites … We’re preparing for the worst.”

By early Wednesday afternoon the center of the storm was 20 miles (35 kilometers) east-southeast of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and 90 miles (150 kilometers) east of San Juan, Puerto Rico and heading west-northwest at 16 mph (26 kph).

The U.S. National Weather Service said Puerto Rico had not seen a hurricane of Irma’s magnitude since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928, which killed a total of 2,748 people in Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico and Florida.

“The dangerousness of this event is like nothing we’ve ever seen,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. “A lot of infrastructure won’t be able to withstand this kind of force.”

Puerto Rico’s public power company has cut back on staff and maintenance amid a deep economic crisis and the agency’s director warned that some areas could be without power from four to six months because the infrastructure has already deteriorated so badly. Power outages were reported in some neighborhoods well ahead of the storm.

The federal government has stepped in, with President Donald Trump this week approving an emergency declaration for the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. That means that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies can remove debris and give other services that will largely be paid for by the U.S. government.

State maintenance worker Juan Tosado said he was without power for three months after Hurricane Hugo killed dozens of people in Puerto Rico in 1989.

“I expect the same from this storm,” he said. “It’s going to be bad.”

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Irma’s winds would fluctuate, but the storm would likely remain at Category 4 or 5 for the next day or two as it roared past Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, the Turks & Caicos and parts of the Bahamas.

By early Sunday, Irma is expected to hit Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott said he planned to activate 7,000 National Guard members by Friday and warned that Irma is “bigger, faster and stronger” than Hurricane Andrew. Andrew pummeled south Florida 25 years ago and wiped out entire neighborhoods with ferocious winds. Trump also declared an emergency in Florida and authorities in the Bahamas said they would evacuate six southern islands.

National Weather Service director Louis Uccellini said he was concerned about Florida up the east coast to North Carolina, starting with the Florida Keys.

“We’re very worried about the impact of the winds and surge on the Keys as the storm approaches,” Uccellini said. “Be ready for all the hazards associated with this storm (storm surge, high winds and heavy rain). They are all going to be dangerous.”

Floridians stocked up on drinking water and other officials in the Florida Keys geared up to get tourists and residents out of Irma’s path. The mayor of Miami-Dade County said people should be prepared to evacuate Miami Beach and most coastal areas as soon as Wednesday evening. He activated the emergency operation center and urged residents to have three days’ worth of food and water.

The State Department authorized voluntary evacuation of U.S. diplomats and their families from Cuba, where the storm was expected to arrive by Friday.

MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel, an expert in hurricanes, calculated that the amount of energy in Hurricane Irma is about 7 trillion watts, about twice the energy of all bombs used in World War II. He said it close to how much energy people use around the world. Pennsylvania State University meteorology professor Paul Markowski estimated it could be three times that.

Warm water is fuel for hurricanes and Irma was moving over water that was 1.8 degrees (1 degree Celsius) warmer than normal. The 79 degree (26 Celsius) water that hurricanes need went about 250 feet (80 meters) deep, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the private forecasting service Weather Underground.

Four other storms have had winds as strong in the overall Atlantic region, but they were in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, which usually have warmer waters. Hurricane Allen hit 190 mph in 1980, while 2005’s Wilma, 1988’s Gilbert and a 1935 great Florida Keys storm all had 185 mph winds.

Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said his government was evacuating six islands because authorities would not be able to help anyone caught in the “potentially catastrophic” wind, flooding and storm surge. People there would be flown to Nassau in what he called the largest storm evacuation in the country’s history.

The northern parts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti could see 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain, with as much as 20 inches (50 centimeters) in the southeast Bahamas and Turks and Caicos.

Also Wednesday, a new tropical storm formed in the Gulf of Mexico off Mexico’s coast. Tropical Storm Katia had maximum sustained winds of 45 mph (75 kph) by the early afternoon and the hurricane center said it could become a hurricane before it approaches the coast of Veracruz state. Katia was located about 175 miles (280 kms) north of the city of Veracruz.

And another tropical storm farther east in the Atlantic was expected to become a hurricane by Wednesday night. Tropical Storm Jose’s maximum sustained winds had increased to near 70 mph (110 kph). The storm was centered about 1,135 miles (1,825 kilometers) east of the Lesser Antilles and was moving west near 13 mph (20 kph).

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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