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Associated Press

Floridians file nearly 17,000 flood insurance claims

Nearly 17,000 flood insurance claims connected with Hurricane Irma have been filed, and more are expected in the coming weeks.

The Sun-Sentinel reports that of 16,786 flood claims filed through Thursday, 3,969 were filed in Monroe County.

FEMA data shows that Miami-Dade residents have filed 1,870 claims, 829 have been filed in Broward County and 199 have come from Palm Beach County.

Other counties with large numbers of flood insurance claims are Duval, with 1,514, Lee, with 1,426 and Collier with 1,364.

Fewer than 200 claims have been filed in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Charlotte counties — an example of how the Tampa Bay region was spared the severe impact feared by forecasters.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Official: Hurricane Maria set Puerto Rico back decades

Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative in the U.S. Congress said Sunday that Hurricane Maria’s destruction has set the island back decades, even as authorities worked to assess the extent of the damage.

“The devastation in Puerto Rico has set us back nearly 20 to 30 years,” said Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez. “I can’t deny that the Puerto Rico of now is different from that of a week ago. The destruction of properties, of flattened structures, of families without homes, of debris everywhere. The island’s greenery is gone.”

Engineers on Sunday planned to inspect the roughly 90-year-old Guajataca Dam, which holds back a reservoir covering about 2 square miles (5 square kilometers) in northwest Puerto Rico. The government said it suffered a large crack after Maria dumped 15 inches (nearly 40 centimeters) of rain on the surrounding mountains and that it “will collapse at any minute.” Nearby residents had been evacuated, but began returning to their homes Saturday after a spillway eased pressure on the dam.

Puerto Rico’s National Guard diverted an oil tanker that broke free and threatened to crash into the southeast coast, said Gov. Ricardo Rossello, and officials still had not had communication with nine of 78 municipalities.

“This is a major disaster,” he said. “We’ve had extensive damage. This is going to take some time.”

The death toll from Maria in Puerto Rico was at least 10, including two police officers who drowned in floodwaters in the western town of Aguada. That number was expected to climb as officials from remote towns continued to check in with officials in San Juan. Authorities in the town of Vega Alta on the north coast said they had been unable to reach an entire neighborhood called Fatima, and were particularly worried about residents of a nursing home.

Across the Caribbean, Maria had claimed at least 31 lives, including at least 15 on hard-hit Dominica.

Mike Hyland, a spokesman for the American Public Power Association, which represents the Puerto Rican power agency, said Sunday that restoration is a long ways off. The organization is working with U.S. Energy Department crews as well as New York Power Authority workers sent down by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to fly over the island and assess damage.

Crews hoped to get helicopters and drones in the air over the next two days to assess the damage, but Hyland said they need to be patient and let the military continue rescuing people before focusing on restoring power.

“We are trying to get an understanding of the extent of the damage over the next 48 hours to then begin to work with our federal partners to get the right crews and equipment down to Puerto Rico,” Hyland said.

Large amounts of federal aid have begun moving into Puerto Rico, welcomed by local officials who praised the Trump administration’s response but called for the emergency loosening of rules long blamed for condemning the U.S. territory to second-class status.

The opening of the island’s main port in the capital allowed 11 ships to bring in 1.6 million gallons of water, 23,000 cots, dozens of generators and food. Dozens more shipments are expected in upcoming days.

The federal aid effort is racing to stem a growing humanitarian crisis in towns left without fresh water, fuel, electricity or phone service. Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is in charge of the relief effort, said they would take satellite phones to all of Puerto Rico’s towns and cities, more than half of which were cut off following Maria’s devastating crossing of Puerto Rico on Wednesday.

The island’s infrastructure was in sorry shape long before Maria struck. A $73 billion debt crisis has left agencies like the state power company broke. As a result, the power company abandoned most basic maintenance in recent years, leaving the island subject to regular blackouts.

A federal control board overseeing Puerto Rico’s finances authorized up to $1 billion in local funds to be used for hurricane response, but the governor said he would ask for more.

“We’re going to request waivers and other mechanisms so Puerto Rico can respond to this crisis,” Rossello said. “Puerto Rico will practically collect no taxes in the next month.”

U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez of New York said she will request a one-year waiver from the Jones Act, a federal law blamed for driving up prices on Puerto Rico by requiring cargo shipments there to move only on U.S. vessels as a means of supporting the U.S. maritime industry.

“We will use all our resources,” Velazquez said. “We need to make Puerto Rico whole again. These are American citizens.”

A group of anxious mayors traveled to the capital to meet with Rossello to present a long list of items they urgently need. The north coastal town of Manati had run out of fuel and fresh water, Mayor Jose Sanchez Gonzalez said.

“Hysteria is starting to spread. The hospital is about to collapse. It’s at capacity,” he said, crying. “We need someone to help us immediately.”

Across Puerto Rico, more than 15,000 people were in shelters, including some 2,000 rescued from the north coastal town of Toa Baja. Many Puerto Ricans planned to head to the mainland to temporarily escape the devastation.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

NFL owners speak out in support of players, against Trump

The NFL’s players and owners are frequently at odds over the issues, finances and rules of the game, a long-running feud that looms large toward another potential work stoppage after the 2020 season.

The two sides in the nation’s most popular professional sports league united this weekend in a manner unseen in years, sounding a resolute chord in decrying President Donald Trump’s remarks about players kneeling during the national anthem.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired,’” Trump said to loud applause Friday night at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama, comments he kept echoing over the next two days.

“If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!” the president said in a Sunday morning tweet.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick started the movement last year when he played for the San Francisco 49ers, refusing to stand during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest the treatment of black people by police. Kaepernick became a free agent and has not been signed by a new team for this season.

Without naming Kaepernick, Trump aimed his talk at those players who have knelt for the anthem.

“That’s a total disrespect of our heritage. That’s a total disrespect of everything that we stand for,” Trump said.

His remarks provoked team owners and the NFL to stridently defend the sport and its players.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who’s been a strong supporter of the president, expressed “deep disappointment” with Trump on Sunday and said politicians could learn much from the unifying spirit of a competitive enterprise like professional football that succeeds from teamwork.

“I am deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the President …,” Kraft said in a statement. “Our players are intelligent, thoughtful, and care deeply about our community and I support their right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful.”

The Buffalo Bills were bothered enough by the situation to hold a voluntary team meeting on Saturday, with players, coaches, staff and ownership all taking part.

“Our goal was to provide open dialogue and communication. We listened to one another. We believe it’s the best way to work through any issue we are facing, on and off the field,” owners Terry and Kim Pegula said in a statement distributed by the Bills. “President Trump’s remarks were divisive and disrespectful to the entire NFL community, but we tried to use them as an opportunity to further unify our team and our organization. Our players have the freedom to express themselves in a respectful and thoughtful manner and we all agreed that our sole message is to provide and to promote an environment that is focused on love and equality.”

Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has taken heat for Kaepernick’s struggle to find a team, quickly condemned Trump’s comments.

“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture. There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we’ve experienced over the last month,” Goodell said. “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.”

At least seven team owners donated $1 million each to Trump’s inaugural committee. But Los Angeles Chargers owner Dean Spanos, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, New York Giants owners John Mara and Steve Tisch, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, Tennessee Titans’ controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk and San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York were among the league power-brokers who issued condemning statements through their clubs.

“The callous and offensive comments made by the president are contradictory to what this great country stands for,” York said. “Our players have exercised their rights as United States citizens in order to spark conversation and action to address social injustice. We will continue to support them in their peaceful pursuit of positive change in our country and around the world.”

Added Green Bay Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy: “We believe it is important to support any of our players who choose to peacefully express themselves with the hope of change for good. As Americans, we are fortunate to be able to speak openly and freely.”

This weekend’s games were sure to bring more protests, with Tampa Bay receiver Desean Jackson promising to make “a statement.”

“I know our players who kneeled for the anthem, and these are smart young men of character who want to make our world a better place for everyone,” Ross said. “They wanted to start a conversation and are making a difference in our community, including working with law enforcement to bring people together. We all can benefit from learning, listening and respecting each other.”

Florida State gives big bonus, raise to President Thrasher

For the third year in a row, Florida State University President John Thrasher is getting a substantial bonus and another boost in pay.

FSU trustees on Friday voted to boost Thrasher’s annual salary by 7 percent to $555,560. Trustees also agreed to give him a $200,000 bonus for his performance. Last year, Thrasher was given a $100,000 bonus. Thrasher later this year will also get a 1.45 percent raise being given to all FSU employees.

Trustees said they were giving him a raise because they’re pleased with his performance. They noted that FSU’s national rankings have jumped during his time in office.

FSU is also extending Thrasher’s contract by another year. This means he would stay as president until 2020. If he stays on the job until then, he would get a $400,000 bonus.

GOP governors launch ‘news’ site critics call propaganda

Republican governors are getting into the “news” business.

The Republican Governors Association has quietly launched an online publication that looks like a media outlet and is branded as such on social media. The Free Telegraph blares headlines about the virtues of GOP governors, while framing Democrats negatively. It asks readers to sign up for breaking news alerts. It launched in the summer bearing no acknowledgment that it was a product of an official party committee whose sole purpose is to get more Republicans elected.

Only after The Associated Press inquired about the site last week was a disclosure added to The Free Telegraph’s pages identifying the publication’s partisan source.

The governors’ association describes the website as routine political communication. Critics, including some Republicans, say it pushes the limits of honest campaign tactics in an era of increasingly partisan media and a proliferation of “fake news” sites, including those whose material became part of an apparent Russian propaganda effort during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“It’s propaganda for sure, even if they have objective standards and all the reporting is 100 percent accurate,” said Republican communications veteran Rick Tyler, whose resume includes Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign.

The website was registered July 7 through Domains By Proxy, a company that allows the originators of a site to shield their identities. An AP search did not find any corporate, Federal Election Commission or IRS filings establishing The Free Telegraph as an independent entity.

As of early Monday afternoon, The Free Telegraph’s Twitter account and Facebook page still had no obvious identifiers tying the site to RGA. The site described itself on Twitter as “bringing you the political news that matters outside of Washington.” The Facebook account labeled The Free Telegraph a “Media/News Company.” That’s a contrast to the RGA’s Facebook page, which is clearly disclosed as belonging to a “Political Organization,” as is the account of its counterpart, the Democratic Governors Association.

RGA Chairman Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, deferred questions through a spokesman to the group’s national staff. At RGA, spokesman Jon Thompson said the site is “just another outlet to share those positive results” of the GOP’s 34 Republican governors.

It’s not unprecedented for politicians to try their hand at news distribution. President Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, hosted “real news” video segments in the summer, posted to the president’s Facebook page. In one typical segment, she told viewers she wanted to highlight “all the accomplishments the president had this week because there’s so much fake news out there.”

Vice President Mike Pence, when he was Indiana governor, pitched the idea of a news agency run by state government, but he ditched the idea in 2015 after criticism. In both cases, however, Lara Trump and Pence were not aiming to hide the source of the content.

But the RGA site has Democrats, media analysts and even some Republicans crying foul.

Democrats say Republicans are laying the groundwork with headlines that will appear in future digital and television ads, while also providing individual voters with fodder to distribute across social media.

“They’re just seeding the ground,” said Angelo Carusone, who runs Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group. “They are repackaging their opposition research, so it’s there as ‘news,’ and at any moment that publication could become the defining moment of the narrative” in some state’s campaign for governor.

Political communications expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has studied political advertising for four decades, said The Free Telegraph commits a form of “identity theft” by “appropriating the integrity of news” because “the form of news carries credibility” that blatantly partisan sites do not.

Jamieson was particularly critical of RGA’s initial failure to disclose its involvement. “What we know about audiences is they factor in the source of information when judging that information,” she said. “If you are denying the reader, the listener or the viewer information you know the reader uses, the question is why do you feel the need to do this?”

A recent RGA fundraising email said the site was “fact-checking the liberal media” and is a counter to “decades of demonizing Republicans.” Playing off President Donald Trump’s dismissal of “fake news,” the email said media “can say whatever they like about us — whether it’s true or not.”

Some of The Free Telegraph’s content plays off material from traditional media organizations and from right-leaning outlets such as The Daily Caller. RGA press releases are linked. Some headlines and photos are exact duplicates of RGA press releases.

In the days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas and Louisiana, the site included headlines praising Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, for his response. There were no such headlines for Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.

The content is far tamer than from some sites from that popped up during the 2016 presidential campaign to propagate sensational but baseless stories. But it does create a cache of headlines that could turn up in campaigns.

The first test is in this fall’s Virginia governor’s race pitting Democratic nominee Ralph Northam against Republican Ed Gillespie. Virginians already have seen another site, The Republican Standard, that is run by Virginia Republican operatives with ties to Gillespie, a former state and national party chairman, and to a firm that has been paid by the RGA. The Free Telegraph and its social media accounts frequently link The Republican Standard.

Northam campaign spokesman David Turner accused Gillespie and Republicans of “creating their own Pravda,” a nod to the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The Gillespie campaign declined comment, referring questions back to the RGA.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

After Irma, Florida Jews seek respite in High Holy Days

During Hurricane Irma, Temple Shalom served as a sanctuary of a different kind.

When the storm changed course at the last minute, the Naples synagogue suddenly became an emergency shelter. As power stayed off for days, the Reform temple, which had only minimal damage, was a place for neighbors to escape the heat and have a free meal.

Now, amid the upheaval caused by Irma, Rabbi Adam Miller has decided the sermons he had carefully planned for the Jewish High Holy Days, starting Wednesday night, are no longer relevant.

“Those are in the trash can,” said Miller, who rode out the storm in Memphis, Tennessee, carrying one of the synagogue’s Torah scrolls for safekeeping. “The new message now is bringing the community together. No matter how challenging it might seem, we can pick up the pieces and rebuild.”

In Florida’s large Jewish community, the solemn period starting with Rosh Hashana has taken on new meaning as congregants facing desperate uncertainty about the state of their homes, neighbors and livelihoods seek as much comfort as inspiration in the new year.

“The hurricane was so incredibly disruptive psychologically,” said Rabbi Michael Resnick of Temple Emanu-el of Palm Beach, a Conservative congregation, who used a solar charger to power his phone so he could send emails of support to his congregation throughout the storm and in the days after. “For me, it was a reminder of how small and fragile we are and that we really have no control over a whole lot.”

Even before Irma, Jews in Florida and throughout the country were unsettled approaching the holidays, after a year of ever-bolder expressions of anti-Semitism, including a rally last month of neo-Nazis and white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, where cries of “Sieg Heil!” were heard. President Donald Trump’s blaming of “many sides” for the violence at the march drew rebukes from many Jewish leaders.

For Florida’s Jews, Irma presented a more immediate personal threat. About 600,000 Florida residents — or about 3 percent of the population — are Jewish, and many are elderly. Jews

Lillian Andron, 70, who spent days without power at their home, declined invitations from friends to go elsewhere for the holidays because her husband, Michael, wanted to keep his years-long tradition of blowing the shofar, or ceremonial ram’s horn, at his North Miami Beach Orthodox congregation. He started practicing a month ago, a sound his wife found comforting during a difficult two weeks of storm watching, long gas lines, the hurricane and the aftermath.

“I feel like this year Rosh Hashana became even more important because we just want to get in touch with the infinite, so I feel like I don’t need to do the big meal and have company. This year I just wanted to be more reflective,” she said.

Many Jews who evacuated ahead of Irma will not make it back to their communities and their synagogues for the holidays. Miller said some parents have told him they won’t return until schools re-open. Resnick said many of his congregants who had spent the summer outside of Florida have dropped plans to return to Palm Beach for Rosh Hashana.

The Reform Jewish movement and other branches of American Judaism are asking synagogues around the country to admit those displaced by Irma and Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Texas last month. Congregations generally charge for attendance during the High Holy Days, which also include Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement.

In Key West, Rabbi Yaakov Zucker of the Chabad Jewish Center in the Florida Keys said his congregation of about 200 people is scattered across four states.

“They themselves are sort of wandering Jews right now, refugees,” Zucker said as he fielded calls from congregants seeking a place to attend services. A synagogue in Parkland has offered to host them, Zucker said, and he expects at least 50 of them to attend.

The disruption from the storm could reach far beyond the immediate period of recovery. The High Holy Days are a critical time for fund-raising, which can make or break a synagogue budget for the year.

Kol Ami of Boca Raton, a small Reconstructionist congregation trying to attract new members, does not sell seats for New Year services and instead relies on contributions to cover the costs of flying in a rabbi and cantor to lead worship.

Kol Ami’s rental space, at a Unitarian Universalist church, had no building damage, but some electronics inside were damaged.

“We’re not sure how much we’ll have to improvise,” said Roberta Jainchill, the congregation’s president. “We survive from one holiday to the next and hope people come through with donations. I hope we make it.”

Miller said his Reform synagogue will host about 40 members of a nearby Conservative congregation because their building was too damaged to hold services.

Miller was a student rabbi in New York City when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred. He said Florida after Irma feels “a little like that.”

“We’re a community where everybody’s life is turned upside down,” he said. “People here desperately need to hear the shofar calling them to another year of life.”

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

SW Florida residents clear sodden homes in scorching heat

Dealing with wrecked belongings and reports of toxic muck, residents of a tiny town where Florida’s Everglades meet the Gulf of Mexico cleared their homes Monday in scorching 92 F (33 C) heat with no air conditioning and no electricity except from a few generators.

The isolated Everglades City community of about 400 people suffered some of Florida’s worst storm surges — up to 9 feet (2.7 meters) — when Hurricane Irma slammed the region eight days ago, leaving the insides of homes a sodden mess and caking the streets with mud. The storm affected nearly every part of the state, and more than two dozen people were killed.

“We will make it. We just have to stay positive,” said Shaun Foerman, who was ripping drywall and carpeting from his home, which sits on 2-foot stilts but still was filled with 4 feet of water.

The post-storm death of a man in the nearby hamlet of Ochopee from an infected wound after walking through mud alarmed residents and prompted Florida’s Health Department to tweet Sunday that rumors of spreading flesh-eating bacteria were false. Collier County said authorities were testing stormwater, and state health officials have offered vaccinations while investigating reports of infections.

The state’s emergency management division reported Monday that more than 407,000 homes and businesses were still without electricity — nearly 4 percent of all utility accounts in the state.

Nearly 30 percent of homes and businesses in both Collier and Monroe counties remain without power. Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest utility, said it will take until Friday to restore electricity to most homes in southwest Florida.

Several Everglades City residents said they needed generators and complained that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had not done much yet, beyond taking applications for aid. Help arrived faster after Hurricane Wilma in 2005, said Robert Miller, who added that his restaurant, store and real estate company in town have suffered $3.5 million in damages from Irma.

“This is ridiculous,” Miller said, pointing to the piles of ruined mattresses, furniture, clothes and tree branches piled along his street. “Find me a truck in this town. There aren’t any. Last time, FEMA agents were in here. They were getting us loans. They brought trailers in. We have people here who don’t have a place to live.”

FEMA said the agency has supplied Florida with 73 generators, among other aid, but it’s up to state officials to distribute them. Regional administrator Gracia Szchech denied that the agency’s response in Everglades City or elsewhere has been slower than after Wilma. She said the agency’s job was not to provide cleanup trucks but to reimburse the state for its work and to help individuals with houses.

“We are going to come up with solutions, working with the state to come up with various housing solutions for survivors throughout the state of Florida. There is a process to it,” Szchech said at a news conference in Naples.

Gov. Rick Scott urged counties and residents to focus now on debris cleanup, getting power back and helping individuals who have lost homes. He said he has ordered each county to submit a cleanup plan to the state by noon Tuesday.

In Foerman’s home, a water-logged piano sat in what used to be the living room. Outside, the family’s leather-bound Bible was set to dry on the porch in hopes of saving it. On a wall, an acoustic guitar owned by Foerman’s father was hanging to air out. Foerman’s mother found it floating in its case after the storm. When she picked up the case, sheet music for the song, “Angels Watching Over Me” fell out, he said.

“That was pretty deep. She just about lost it,” said Foerman, a 40-year-old contractor whose family has lived in the community for 80 years.

Volunteer Michael Hunter said he has no electricity at home in Naples, but residents of Everglades City were in much worse shape.

“It’s hotter than heck, but we have four walls,” said Hunter, a medical supplies salesman. “These people don’t have anything. They don’t have water, they don’t have food. It shows what’s important in life.”

In Ochopee, home to the country’s smallest post office, Lisa Marteeny grieved over the death of her 72-year-old husband, Lee, who succumbed Saturday to a leg infection he contracted while walking through the water and muck after the storm.

The couple thought they could ride out the storm in their waterfront mobile home as they had done with Wilma. But when the water started rising, reaching their chests in less than an hour, they and their dog, Killer, had retreated to the 12-foot balcony on their neighbor’s home and spent the night.

Late last week, Lee Marteeny’s leg began aching and some red spots turned black.

“He woke up Friday morning in such agony,” Lisa Marteeny said, weeping. “I said to him, ’Honey, what we are doing isn’t working,” and she urged him to go at hospital, where he was put on a ventilator. “He never woke back up.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Official: ‘Lethal’ Irma a ‘major calamity’ for Florida crops

Florida’s agriculture commissioner said Monday that the path of Hurricane Irma “could not have been more lethal” to the state’s farmers and that the scope of damage to the state’s fruits and vegetables is unprecedented.

Commissioner Adam Putnam, along with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, flew over hundreds of miles of Florida farmland to view the damage. Rural communities and farmland were in the path of the devastating storm from south to north.

Putnam said the citrus crop in southwest Florida is particularly devastated. The scope of the damage is more evident this week because the dropped fruit is starting to turn from green to orange, leaving piles of ruined juice oranges in the groves. He added that some groves are still underwater, which will likely kill the trees.

“There are a number of old timers who have seen a lot of freezes and fires and floods, and the consensus of the growers is that this is the state’s most significant crop loss ever,” said Putnam.

Florida is the nation’s largest juice producer. The citrus industry was already battling a deadly disease when Irma hit. Some citrus producers in Southwest Florida say they’ve lost 80-90 percent of their crop, while producers elsewhere say 40 percent was ruined by the storm.

Other crops were also destroyed. Lisa Lochridge, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, said last week that reports indicate a 50 percent to 70 percent crop loss in South Florida.

Florida is a key source of fresh fruits and vegetables for the nation in the winter.

Putnam said that most growers who had anticipated getting vegetables on the table for November are probably in trouble.

“They’ll miss their Thanksgiving market,” he said.

Among the hardest hit crops: avocadoes and ornamental plants in Miami-Dade County, along with field crops such as eggplants, tomatoes and bell peppers.

In addition to farmers, people who pick crops, drive produce trucks and process the crops will all feel the downturn.

“This is a major calamity,” said Putnam.

Agriculture, fishing and horticulture contribute $150 billion dollars to the state’s economy.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Irma’s damage a reminder of Florida economy’s vulnerability

Florida’s economy has long thrived on one import above all: People.

Until Irma struck this month, the state was adding nearly 1,000 residents a day — 333,471 in the past year, akin to absorbing a city the size of St. Louis or Pittsburgh. Every jobseeker, retiree or new birth, along with billions spent by tourists, helped fuel Florida’s propulsive growth and economic gains.

Yet Hurricane Irma’s destructive floodwaters renewed fears about how to manage the state’s population boom as the risks of climate change intensify. Rising sea levels and spreading flood plains have magnified the vulnerabilities for the legions of people who continue to move to Florida and the state economy they have sustained.

Florida faces an urgent need to adapt to the environmental changes, said Jesse Keenan, a lecturer at Harvard University who researches the effects of rising sea levels on cities.

“A lot is going to change in the next 30 years — this is just the beginning,” Keenan said.

People might need to live further inland, Keenan said, and employers might have to relocate to higher ground, with the resulting competition between offices and housing driving up land prices. It would become harder to adequately insure houses built along canals. Traffic delays could worsen across parts of Florida as more roads flood. Developers might shift away from sprawling suburban tracts toward denser urban pockets that are better equipped to manage floods.

At the same time, the belief remains firm among some developers and economists that for all the threats from rising water levels, the state’s population influx will continue with scarcely any interruption. The allure of lower taxes and easier living, the thinking goes, should keep drawing a flow of residents and vacationers.

“Irma doesn’t change the fact that there is no state income tax,” said Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Economic Competitiveness. “In a few months, when the first Alberta Clipper starts blowing down cold weather across the United States and it’s 80 degrees and sunny down here, the memories of Irma will be blown away.”

Certainly, the influx of people has been testament to that appeal. After slowing when the housing bubble burst in 2007, the population has marched steadily upward. The number of Floridians, now above 20 million, is projected to hit 24 million by 2030, with more than half the increase coming from retiring baby boomers. Many of them first experienced Florida as tourists. More than 112 million people visited the state last year — a 33 percent increase over the past decade.

All of which means that compared with Hurricane Andrew 25 years ago, Irma struck a far more densely packed state. It is also one marked by greater extremes of wealth and poverty. Luxury condo towers populated by the global elite now crowd the Miami skyline. But the metro area is also cursed by the worst rental housing affordability in the United States, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Flooding washed away mobile home parks in the Florida Keys where lower-income workers live. As a magnet for jobs at restaurants, hotels and other parts of the services sector, the state attracts workers with relatively low incomes who can’t pay higher rents if flooding eliminates a chunk of the housing stock.

Still, Citigroup estimated that damages were just $50 billion — well below initial estimates — in part because some homes were better equipped to weather the wind and rain than during Andrew.

Storms can cause population loss in the near term. A year after Andrew hit in 1992, Miami-Dade County lost 31,000 residents. Many appear to have moved to Broward and Palm Beach counties, where the risks of flooding were lower, a pattern that could be repeated after Irma.

Given the brisk pace of construction and population growth, Florida could endure a heavy economic blow in coming decades if it fails to reduce the risks from climate change. Homes that were too close to eroding beaches could become effectively worthless. Those along canals that flood could become too costly to rebuild. The state’s economic fuel — tourism and residential development — could dissipate.

Sean Becketti, chief economist at Freddie Mac, the mortgage giant, warned in an analysis last year that rising sea levels and widening flood plains “appear likely to destroy billions of dollars in property and to displace millions of people.”

“The economic losses and social disruption,” Becketti added, “may happen gradually, but they are likely to be greater in total than those experienced in the housing crisis and Great Recession.”

Federal taxpayers might oppose bailing out these homeowners, Becketti said, mortgage lenders could absorb heavy losses and employers might choose to move to safer parts of the country — and take their jobs with them.

Still, for now at least, the heads of several major Florida real estate companies say they expect people to keep flocking to Florida despite the increasing risks.

Budge Huskey, president of Premier Sotheby’s International Realty, drove around Naples, Florida, and said he observed “very little damage” to homes constructed under new building codes after Hurricane Andrew. These houses had wind-resistant hurricane windows and stronger roofs.

“Let’s face it, people work their whole lives to retire to Florida — that’s where they want to be,” Huskey said.

Jay Parker, CEO of Douglas Elliman’s Florida brokerage, monitored Irma from an Atlanta hotel. He was gratified that Florida escaped much of the expected destruction. And he said would-be buyers, sniffing out potential bargains, were approaching him at the hotel about cut-rate deals on condos in the storm’s wake.

“If anything,” Parker said, “this might create some short-term buying sprees.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Officials: Returning Keys residents must be self-sustaining

As the devastated Florida Keys began reopening to residents who fled Hurricane Irma, officials warned the returning islanders to bring enough supplies to sustain them for a while, because no one yet knows when water and power will be fully restored.

“The Keys are not what you left several days ago when you evacuated. Electricity, sewer and water are intermittent at best,” said Monroe County Mayor George Neugent during a news conference Saturday.

Officials opened up U.S. 1 on Saturday all the way south to Marathon for residents, business owners, disaster workers and supply trucks. They also announced plans to let the same groups have access all the way to Key West starting at 7 a.m. Sunday.

Recovery efforts are well underway with the Salvation Army planning to serve 5,000 barbecue dinners Saturday night in Marathon and Key West, marking the first hot meals for many since Irma made landfall nearly a week ago.

Roads were being cleared and recovery centers are being set up in the area to help residents fill out FEMA, insurance and small business relief paperwork. Even Publix was open until 5 p.m. on Friday.

Officials had agonized over the decision to reopen the islands, knowing residents were desperate to assess the damage with their own eyes, yet worried about harsh living conditions for those who choose return.

Curfews remained in effect and returning residents received a clear message from Keys officials – you must be self-sufficient. They encouraged residents to bring tents, small air conditioning units, food, water and medications.

Officials said their detailed hurricane plan didn’t account for some unique challenges brought by Irma, which nearly wiped out parts of the middle Keys, while Key West remained in decent shape.

Getting Key West residents and businesses owners to the southernmost point remained a challenge as authorities work to keep out tourists, gawkers, looters and others who could hamper recovery efforts.

Nearly two dozen checkpoints in the hardest hit areas will be heavily staffed with law-enforcement officers to check IDs to ensure only authorized residents and relief workers get through.

Meanwhile, officials said they hope to open government offices, courts and schools in the Keys on September 28.

Further north, Broward County school officials said classes would resume Monday, but in Miami-Dade County, one of the nation’s largest school districts, student still don’t know when they’ll return to class, forcing many parents to juggle childcare as they head into a second week of recovering from Hurricane Irma.

Miami-Dade County hoped to resume operations Monday. But dozens of schools in the district are still without power. An announcement is expected this weekend. In many South Florida counties, school has not been in session since Sept. 6.

The uncertainty put additional stress on parents trying to return to work.

For Lori Eickleberry, 45, who owns a psychology practice with two offices in South Florida, it means dragging her 10-year-old daughter to work with her.

“It’s challenging but we kept busy with activities, some coloring,” said Eickleberry, of Coconut Grove.

In some southwest Florida districts, classes were postponed until Sept. 25.

Irma spread a wide swath of damage across the entire Sunshine State. In southwest Florida on Saturday, officials went door-to-door Saturday warning residents who live near the Withlacoochee River north of the Tampa Bay area of the potential for record-high flooding in the coming days.

Hernando County officials said deputies, firefighters and officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission used boats to get to homes along the river to urge residents to get out as the water levels start rising, according to a news release.

The National Weather Service said a gauge at Trilby in Pasco County is at 16.3 feet (5.9 meters), with the major flood stage is at 16.5 feet (6 meters).

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