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School’s back in session for some in the Florida Keys

 The lights flickered off during the lunchtime rush and the principal had to use a cellphone light to make sure everyone got their food, but school is back in session at a Florida school that was a Red Cross shelter after Hurricane Irma.

Wednesday was the second of three staggered school opening dates in Monroe County since Irma ravaged the Florida Keys Sept. 10.

Principal Wendy McPherson tells the Miami Herald it felt “pretty darn good” to return to Marathon Middle and High School.

For many students, being back in school is the only access they have to air conditioning. The free breakfast and lunch may be the only hot meals they’re getting. During first period, students filled out surveys on their needs — clothing, hygiene products and school supplies.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Now even money is running out in hurricane-hit Puerto Rico

First, Hurricane Maria knocked out power and water to Puerto Rico. Then diesel fuel, gas and water became scarce. Now, it’s money.

The aftermath of the powerful storm has resulted in a near-total shutdown of the U.S. territory’s economy that could last for weeks and has many people running seriously low on cash and worrying that it will become even harder to survive on this storm-ravaged island.

There are long lines at the banks that are open with reduced hours or the scattered ATMs that are operational amid an islandwide power outage and near total loss of telecommunications. Many people are unable to work or run their businesses because diesel to run generators is in short supply or they can’t spend all day waiting for gas to fill their car.

Engineer Octavio Cortes predicts it will only get worse because so many of the problems are interconnected and cannot be easily resolved.

“I don’t know how much worse it’s going to get,” Cortes said as he joined other motorists stopping on a bridge over a river in northern Puerto Rico to catch a faint cellphone signal. “Right now it’s manageable, but I don’t know about next week or after that.”

The father of six typically works from home or travels around the world for his job, but neither approach is possible now because the power is still out for nearly all 3.4 million people in Puerto Rico and flights off the island are down to only a few each day.

While Cortes is OK for the moment, others don’t have nearly the same resources.

Cruzita Mojica is an employee of the Puerto Rico Treasury Department in San Juan. While she, like many public-sector workers, has been called back to work she can’t go because she has to care for her elderly mother in the aftermath of the storm. She got up at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday and went to four ATM machines only to find each one empty.

“Of course, I took out money before the hurricane, but it’s gone already,” she said. “We’re without gasoline. Without money. Without food. This is a disaster.”

Surgical technician Dilma Gonzalez said she had only $40 left and her job hasn’t called people back to work yet in the capital. “Until they let us know otherwise, I’m not supposed to go back,” she said with a shrug as she pressure washed the street in front of her house, sending muddy debris flying.

All are struggling with the overwhelming devastation of Hurricane Maria, which began tearing across the island early in the morning of Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm with winds of 155 mph. It destroyed the entire electricity grid while grinding up homes, businesses, roads and farms. At least 16 people were killed. There still is no exact tally of the cost and full extent of the damage, but Gov. Ricardo Rossello says it will bring a complete halt to the economy for at least a month.

“This is the single biggest, major catastrophe in the history of Puerto Rico, bar none, and it is probably the biggest hurricane catastrophe in the United States,” Rossello said Wednesday as he delivered aid to the southern town of Salinas, whose mayor says 100 percent of the agriculture there was wiped out when the wind tore up plantain, corn, vegetables and other crops.

On Thursday the Trump administration announced it was waiving the Jones Act, a little-known federal law that prohibits foreign-flagged ships from shuttling goods between U.S. ports, for Puerto Rico. Republicans and Democrats have pushed for the move, saying it could help get desperately needed supplies to the island more quickly and at less cost.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Twitter that President Donald Trump had “authorized the Jones Act be waived for Puerto Rico” in response to a request from Rossello and that it “will go into effect immediately.”

Antonia Garcia, a retiree who lives in the city of Bayamon, said she was down to her last $4. She spent a day using precious gas to look for an ATM that was in operation because she couldn’t get into her credit union, which was taking only 200 customers a day. “This has become chaotic,” she said.

Puerto Rico was already struggling before the storm. The island has been in a recession for more than a decade, the poverty rate was 45 percent and unemployment was around 10 percent, higher than any U.S. state. Manufacturers of medical equipment and pharmaceuticals, which are the most important segment of the economy, have been shedding jobs for years. Now everything from multinational companies to small businesses and ranches are scrambling to get enough fuel to run generators while their employees struggle to even get to work.

Before the storm, the island’s government was in the midst of bitter negotiations with creditors to restructure a portion of its $73 billion in debt, which the previous governor declared unpayable. Rossello appeared to warn the bondholders that the storm had made things worse. “Puerto Rico practically will have no income for the next month,” he told reporters.

Making matters worse for many consumers is the fact that those food stores that are open, typically on reduced hours, are unable to process credit or bank cards or the local system of welfare payments. The businesses are insisting on cash, even though that is technically illegal.

Still, as in any economic crisis, there are people who find the upside. Christian Mendoza said the car wash where he works hasn’t re-opened so he has been selling bottled water, even without refrigeration. “The water hot and it still went like you wouldn’t believe,” he said.

Another relative success story is Elpidio Fernandez, a 78-year-old who sells coconut and passion fruit ice cream from a pushcart on the streets of San Juan and has a supplier with a generator. He has made up to $500 on some days since the storm.

“Business has multiplied by a thousand,” he said, but he quickly added: “Even though I’m doing well, I don’t feel good because I know other people are suffering.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

‘Nothing, nothing.’ Aid lags in hurricane-torn Puerto Rico

Relatives helped Maribel Valentin Espino find shelter when Hurricane Maria roared through her community in northern Puerto Rico. Neighbors formed volunteer brigades to cut fallen trees and clear twisty mountain roads after the storm had passed. Now, friends and a local cattle ranch provide the water they need to survive in the tropical heat.

Valentin and her husband say they have not seen anyone from the Puerto Rican government, much less the Federal Emergency Management Agency, since the storm tore up the island Sept. 20, killing at least 16 people and leaving nearly all 3.4 million people in Puerto Rico without power and most without water.

“People say FEMA is going to help us,” Valentin said Tuesday as she showed Associated Press journalists around the sodden wreckage of her home. “We’re waiting.”

Many others are also waiting for help from anyone from the federal or Puerto Rican government. But the scope of the devastation is so broad, and the relief effort so concentrated in San Juan, that many people from outside the capital say they have received little to no help.

Valentin, her husband and teenage son live in one such area, Montebello, a 20-minute drive into what used to be lushly forested mountains near the northern coastal municipality of Manati. Hurricane Maria’s Category 4 winds stripped the trees bare and scattered them like matchsticks. “It seemed like a monster,” she recalled.

The roads are passable now but the community is still isolated. “Nobody has visited, not from the government, not from the city, no one,” said Antonio Velez, a 64-year-old who has lived there his entire life.

The same complaint echoed throughout the southeast coastal town of Yabucoa, the first town Maria hit as it barreled across the island with 155 mph winds.

“Nothing, nothing, nothing,” said 58-year-old retiree Angel Luis Rodriguez. “I’ve lost everything, and no one has shown up to see if anyone lives here.”

At a nearby river, dozens of people gathered to bathe and wash clothes as they grumbled about the lack of aid.

“There’s been no help from the mayor or from the federal government,” said 64-year-old retiree Maria Rodriguez as she held a coconut in her right hand and took sips from it. “After Georges hit us (in 1998), they responded quickly. But now? Nothing. We need water and food.”

Nearby, one girl engaged in a thumb war with a friend as she filled an empty water bottle with her other hand. Downstream, a woman sat cross-legged in the water behind a friend and helped wash her hair.

The recovery in the first week since the storm has largely been a do-it-yourself affair. People collect water from wells and streams, clear roads and repair their own homes when they are not waiting in daylong lines for gasoline and diesel. For most, the only visible sign of authority are police officers directing traffic, a critical service because traffic lights are out across the island.

“I have seen a lot of helicopters go by. I assume those are people from FEMA,” said Jesus Argilagos, who lives in Manati and works at a grocery store that is only open part of the day because of the power crisis. “People get pissed off because they see them going back and forth and not doing anything.”

There are several thousand U.S. federal employees in Puerto Rico helping with the recovery effort. They are most visible in San Juan, where officials with FEMA, Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection have a presence at hotels that before the storm served tourists in the Condado neighborhood or at the convention center that has become a staging ground for relief efforts.

Federal workers supplied diesel to generators at hospitals and delivered desperately needed food and water to hard-hit communities across the island. They have repaired the air traffic control systems and power at the airport, which is far from normal operations with only about a dozen commercial flights per day. U.S. agents have also provided security across the island and the Coast Guard has worked with local authorities to restore the sea ports, a vital link because Puerto Rico is almost completely dependent on imports.

In addition, teams from the Army Corps of Engineers are helping to repair the electricity grid and to inspect and look for ways to avert the collapse of a dam near the western town of Quebradillas that has developed a crack and that officials have said could potentially fail. And personnel from Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs have provided care and helped evacuate people from Puerto Rico with chronic medical conditions.

Teams also were scheduled to visit the central mountain town of Aibonito, which was cut off from the rest of the island for five days. Many people began rationing their food and water supplies as they dwindled, unclear of when they would have contact with the outside world.

“We thought somebody was going to stop by,” said Ana Lidia Mendoza, a 48-year-old cook at a barbecue restaurant who lost part of her roof. “They told us that we had to stay calm.”

Gov. Ricardo Rossello and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, the island’s representative in Congress, have said they intend to seek more than a billion dollars in federal assistance and they have praised the response to the disaster by President Donald Trump, who plans to visit Puerto Rico next week, as well as FEMA Administrator Brock Long.

“I am confident that they understand the seriousness of the situation,” the governor said Tuesday.

Still, it is hard to avoid the fact that the response looks different than previous ones. After hurricanes in Louisiana, Texas and Florida, waves of power company trucks from other states descended in long convoys, something that is obviously not possible on an island 1,000 miles to the southeast of the mainland. After the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, the U.S. military sent ships and the skies seemed to be filled with heavy-lift helicopters and planes carrying emergency relief, though the scale of that disaster was far worse.

Hurricane Maria was the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly 100 years and officials say the cost of recovery will dwarf that of the punishing Hurricane Georges in 1998. Whatever the final bill, Valentin just hopes it will factor in people like her. “If FEMA helps us, we are going to build again,” she said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Insurers request steep premium hikes for Florida, but Obamacare subsidies may offset the impact

Premiums for health care plans sold on the Affordable Care Act’s federal exchange and outside the exchange will rise an average of 45 percent in Florida this year, according to state officials. However that doesn’t mean consumers will end up spending more money. In fact, they could end up seeing slight decreases.

Florida’s Office of Insurance Regulation released the figures Tuesday for the six health insurers who will sell “Obamacare” plans on the federal marketplace. The news comes as major insurers around the country have pulled out of the market amid dismal profits and growing uncertainty under President Donald Trump‘s administration.

But Florida Blue is offering plans in all 67 counties and is the sole provider in several mostly rural counties, largely in the Panhandle and along the Florida-Georgia border. In highly populated counties like Miami-Dade, Broward and Orange, residents will have several plans to choose from.

All six insurers requested large double-digit rate hikes. The state has the power to negotiate those rates down to a lower price. The lowest increase went to Florida Health Care Plan Inc. with 26.5 percent, and the highest — 71 percent — went to Molina Healthcare of Florida, Inc., according to data from state insurance officials.

Rates can be tricky to understand without context. Last year, for example, the average monthly premium with Florida Blue was $525. This year it jumps to $725. But those figures don’t include subsidies given by the federal government to help consumers pay for their plans. When premiums increase, the subsidies also increase.

The plans fall into four categories: bronze, silver, gold and platinum. Consumers who choose bronze plans pay the lowest monthly premiums, but the most for care. Those with platinum plans have the highest monthly premiums, but the lowest cost of care.

“Most consumers with the silver plans will not see an out-of-pocket change, as the federal premium subsidy will also increase to absorb this extra cost,” state insurance officials said in a press release.

According to their data, a family of four earning $53,000, as well as an individual earning $27,000, may see a slight decrease in their out-of-pocket health insurance premium in 2018.

The Sunshine State has led the country in enrollment on the Affordable Care Act exchange with nearly 1.7 million consumers. About 75 percent of those consumers received funds to help pay for their insurance, according to the federal government.

On Twitter and in interviews, Trump has threatened to give Obamacare a nudge by cutting off payments to precipitate a crisis that would force Congress to act. The loss would have a huge effect on insurers who would have to absorb the hit. Earlier this year, Florida Blue warned that its rates would increase by an additional 20 percent on average across the state without the cost-sharing reductions.

Some experts say the Trump administration is responsible for a large share of the rate hikes.

This November marks the first time that enrollment in President Barack Obama’s signature law will begin under Trump, who campaigned on abolishing the law and has repeatedly said it’s in a death spiral. He and congressional Republicans have been unable to deliver on their promise to “repeal and replace” the 2010 health care law.

But Trump recently cut funding for navigators who counsel people about various plans and help them enroll, slashing the navigator budget 40 percent from $62.5 million for 2017, to $36.8 million for next year. Trump is also reducing the funds that pay for advertising during open enrollment. Advertising will be cut from $100 million spent on 2017 sign-ups to $10 million, said Health and Human Services officials.

Because of these cuts in advertising and enrollment assistance, those who end up signing up for coverage are more likely to be people who desperately need the insurance, said John Holahan, an economist with the Urban Institute.

“This will drive up the risk pool, so premiums will go up,” Holahan said.

Meanwhile, under the administration of Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Florida insurance officials are reminding consumers who don’t qualify for funding assistance that they can purchase insurance outside the federal exchange. But those premiums also increased in the market by an average of 18 percent.

In 2013, an unsubsidized plan comparable to an existing silver plan would cost a family of four an average of $7,200, according to the state. In 2018, the average unsubsidized cost for the same family totals $17,000.

1st cruise ship since Irma docks in Key West

Royal Caribbean International’s Empress of the Seas, with 878 passengers and about 600 crew members, docked in Key West Sunday marking the first cruise ship visit since before Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys Sept. 10.

Officials said resuming cruise ship port calls is significant for the region’s economy, and vital for residents whose livelihood depends on serving visitors.

“Being a tourist-based economy, we need our visitors to come to town, and that is our primary economy,” said Key West Mayor Craig Cates, who was on hand to welcome passengers and ship officers. “They come here to see our beautiful resources, our beautiful town and architecture — and the servers, the bartenders, the hostesses, everybody, depends on them.

“The people need to go back to work, and this is a huge part of our recovery,” Cates said.

Keys county and tourism officials are to meet Monday to discuss formal opening dates for visitors to return to the Keys. Electric and water restoration is almost complete.

In addition to the port, Key West International Airport has reopened for commercial service. Officials say most hotels and visitor facilities in Key West have recovered and are resuming normal operations.

Still, some attractions and businesses were still closed in Key West Sunday, such as the Hemingway Home and Museum. One of the top attractions in the Keys, the one-time residence of Ernest Hemingway is still undergoing landscaping cleanup, but suffered no structural impacts and all of the property’s six-toed cats are well, according to Mike Morawski, who runs the museum.

While Hurricane Irma caused varying degrees of damage along the 125-mile Florida Keys island chain, Key West and the northernmost island of Key Largo reported the fewest impacts.

A number of Keys special events scheduled for mid to late October — including Key West’s Fantasy Fest, Marathon’s Stone Crab Eating Contest and Key Largo’s Humphrey Bogart Film Festival — are to take place as planned, according to organizers.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Aircraft help Florida Keys fishermen find lost lobster traps

Florida Keys fishermen are getting help from the air to locate lobster traps lost during Hurricane Irma.

Florida Sea Grant is sending two aircraft with GPS-capable cameras over the island chain to document the locations of lobster trap clusters in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

In a statement, Florida Sea Grant agent Shelly Krueger said the pilots are trained to identify areas where currents, winds and other storm-related impacts tend to pull traps, buoys and fishing lines together.

The data will be shared with lobster fishermen and state wildlife officials trying to salvage the equipment.

Billy Kelly of the Florida Keys Commercial Fisherman Association says the lobster fishing industry is worth $150 million in the Keys.

Krueger says commercial fishing is the second-largest source of jobs in Monroe County, after tourism.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.


Uber wields new weapon in fight with London: diplomacy

In past skirmishes with local regulators, Uber’s playbook under co-founder and now-ousted CEO Travis Kalanick was simple: fight.

Now, as brand-new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi deals with a stunning rebuke from London, the playbook gets another page: fight, but offer some diplomatic humility.

On Friday, just hours after Greater London’s transport authorities decided not to renew Uber’s operating license, citing a lack of corporate responsibility, Uber wound up for its first punch. Almost reflexively, it followed the familiar tactic of recruiting its mass rider base for help, starting an online petition drive to pressure regulators that now has more than 770,000 signatures. It also promised appeals and defiantly accused regulators of caving in to Taxi interests.

Then, Khosrowshahi took to Twitter. “Dear London: We r far from perfect,” he wrote. “Pls work w/us to make things right.”

It remains to be seen which strategy will work best, and Uber also runs the risk of antagonizing London officials by sending the mixed messages. But deviating from Kalanick’s approach is exactly the right tactic for Khosrowshahi, says Jan Dawson, chief analyst for Jackdaw Research in California. Conciliation, he says, likely will require concessions, but also will bring peace in a huge market with 40,000 drivers and 3.5 million riders — over 5 percent of Uber’s ridership base of 65 million globally.

“The fact that Uber is so mature and broadly used in London means it’s very unlikely that it will be permanently banned there — the political fallout would just be too great,” Dawson said.

As Uber grew at lightning speed during the past seven years, it often entered U.S. cities without permits. When taxicabs complained, Uber defiantly kept hauling people. Usually Kalanick’s tactics prevailed.

“We’re totally legal, like totally legal, and the government is telling us to shut down,” he said in a 2014 Vanity Fair article. “And you can either do what they say or you can fight for what you believe.” He called the strategy “principled confrontation.”

It worked in Chicago as recently as last year, where Alderman Anthony Beale, who fought unsuccessfully to more tightly regulate Uber, said the company used Uber riders and political connections to win — at least so far — a fight over fingerprint background checks of drivers.

“You’re talking about an 800-pound gorilla,” says Beale. “This company needs to be regulated. They need to be regulated heavily because they’re out of control.”

On Monday, Khosrowshahi, who was hired away last month from travel booking giant Expedia, apologized publicly for mistakes of the past. Uber “got things wrong” during its global expansion and is willing to change to stay in business in London, he said in an open letter published by the Evening Standard newspaper. “We will look to be long-term partners with the cities we serve; and we will run our business with humility, integrity and passion.”

Mayor Sadiq Khan welcomed the apology and was pleased to see the company acknowledge issues.

Transport for London, the regulatory body, said last week it wouldn’t renew Uber’s license when it expires Sept. 30. Uber can continue operating while it pursues an appeal.

“Even though there is a legal process in place, I have asked TfL to make themselves available to meet with him,” Khan said of Khosrowshahi.

The row leaves an opening for Lyft, Uber’s much-smaller rival that has designs on growing outside of the U.S. Lyft has talked with TfL, but the company won’t comment on expansion plans.

Uber has struggled with a series of scandals this year, ranging from accusations of sexism to suggestions that it used software to hide information from regulators.

Transport for London said it wouldn’t renew Uber’s license because the company isn’t “fit and proper” to operate in the city. Uber didn’t report serious criminal offenses, including a sexual assault, to London police, authorities said, and failed to conduct proper driver background checks. The regulator also cited Uber’s use of a phony app to deceive regulators in the U.S.

Some Uber supporters say the critique is a smokescreen for a politically motivated decision to appease London taxi drivers, not protect public safety. Uber has long been a target of cab drivers who complain that its drivers don’t have to comply with the same licensing standards, giving the ride-hailing service an advantage.

Abs Dawodu, a London resident, said that forcing Uber off the streets of London would remove a lower-cost alternative to traditional black cabs.

“I can get an Uber for an hour, and if there is two of us, it’s 20 pounds, whereas if it’s a black cab and you go across London it’s going to be a lot more than that,” he said.

John Colley, a professor at the Warwick Business School, points out that Londoners have other options to black cabs, including pre-booked car services such as Addison Lee. He doubts Uber will be able to demonstrate that it has changed its ways because Kalanick remains on the board and has a large ownership stake.

“In the short term, expect plenty of PR, but the prospects of the culture changing while Kalanick is still there are slim,” he said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.


Puerto Ricans hunt for precious Wi-Fi and cell signals

Margarita Aponte and her relatives cleared the road in front of her house with two oxen, then drove an hour from her devastated hometown in central Puerto Rico to the old telegraph building in the capital of San Juan.

There, thousands of Puerto Ricans gathered for a chance at a resource nearly as precious as power and water in the wake of Hurricane Maria — communication.

“It’s ringing, it’s ringing, it’s ringing!” Aponte, a janitor, screamed as her phone connected to free Wi-Fi and her Facetime call went through to the mainland on Sunday.

Her eyes filled with tears as she talked with nephews, uncles, brothers and sisters in Florida and Massachusetts for the first time since Maria destroyed nearly every cellphone and fiber optic connection on this U.S. territory of 3.4 million people.

The low murmur at one of two free Wi-Fi hotspots is occasionally interrupted by the cheering of someone getting through the largely jammed network. Most spend hours frowning at their phones, unable to connect.

“There’s no communication. We’re in God’s hands,” Yesenia Gomez, a kitchen worker, said as she left a message for her mother in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Dozens of other Puerto Ricans opted to pull over to the side of the road along various highways where cellphone signals were strongest.

Carlos Ocasio, a maintenance worker, picked his way through tree branches and broken glass bottles as he found a spot with a good signal. Soon, he was able to reach his brother in New Jersey.

“My throat got a little choked up and I couldn’t talk for a minute,” he said. “They’re calling me from everywhere, asking when I’m going to arrive.”

Others in Puerto Rico and abroad called a local radio station to provide names, numbers, exact addresses and pictures of their loved ones in hopes of reconnecting.

But for hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland, there has been only silence from the island.

Shirley Rodriguez, a resident of New York’s Brooklyn borough, said she has more than 30 relatives in Puerto Rico but she is especially concerned about her 66-year-old mother, Mildred Rodriguez, who has diabetes and pulmonary hypertension and lives in Hormigueros on the island’s west coast.

Rodriguez last spoke to her family before the storm and her relatives were planning on being together for it. Since then, calls to their cellphones have gone to voicemail.

“I’m absolutely numb at this point. It’s a roller-coaster of emotion,” she said. “Not knowing is extremely agonizing.”

Her mother-in-law is in the San Juan area and somehow managed to connect with someone who works for the mayor of Hormigueros, who was able to tell Rodriguez that the area where her parents live escaped flooding. But she still doesn’t know what the actual conditions are like.

Some in Puerto Rico expressed anger over what they said was a lack of communication from cellphone providers about which towers were working so they could drive in that direction.

“They’re not giving us any information,” said Ricardo Castellanos, a business consultant. “We’re in a state of emergency.”

Castellanos visits the Wi-Fi hotspots twice a day to try to reach his two daughters in the central town of Gurabo and has been able to send a few pictures to friends on social media of the devastation the hurricane left behind.

As people continued to search for a connection in silence, some occasionally spoke up to offer unsolicited advice. “I didn’t move my phone around, and I got a signal,” said one woman to a man complaining that he was in a dead zone.

Nearby, retiree Sylvia Calero tapped her phone with impeccably manicured bright orange fingernails as she tried to reach three brothers and three grandchildren in the hard-hit coastal town of Aguadilla in northwest Puerto Rico. She spent an hour walking up and down the upscale Condado district unable to find a signal before driving to the free Wi-Fi hotspot.

“Zero communication,” she said.

Leaning against a boarded-up window, illustrator Avalon Clare from Colorado worried about getting off the island. She and her partner were supposed to fly out of Puerto Rico on Saturday but the flight was canceled. It was rescheduled for Thursday, but Clare said she had no way to confirm whether that was still the case.

“The only thing I can do is text,” she said. “We’re trying to leave because we can’t work without internet … We only have half a tank of gas. We’re running out of cash. It’s just getting harder.”

Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress, urged people to remain calm, noting that the towers of one cellphone provider that had constant coverage after the hurricane collapsed Sunday.

“Don’t become desperate,” she said, adding that if anyone was in danger, local officials would have been notified by now.

Only about 25 percent of towers were working in the San Juan metro area.

Cell service provider T-Mobile said it reached a deal with other providers to help reconnect their customers, saying callers should use the roaming data option to find a connection. Officials said customers would not be charged extra.

Claro was installing 40 generators to power up its towers, and expected 50 more generators to arrive from the Dominican Republic once a ferry from the neighboring island is operational.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello said a major underwater cable had been repaired, which would allow people to make long-distance calls and improve internet service. Two planes from Spain’s telephone company also arrived over the weekend to help re-establish services.

Persistence paid off for many who waited up to three hours to find a signal, including Wanda Nieves, a government worker who stood at one of the free Wi-Fi hotspots.

She heard about it on the radio and drove 30 minutes to reach the site. Nieves spoke to family in Florida and Michigan and did not plan to return for more calls or messages.

“We’ve already given signs of life,” she said. “Now we just wait for Puerto Rico to recover.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Hurricane Irma mangled Florida’s state, national parks

Hurricane Irma mangled Florida’s national and state parks, turning places meant to be enjoyed into disaster zones that could take weeks or longer to reopen.

South Florida National Parks Trust Director Don Finefrock says the National Park Service has sent some 380 workers from 95 national parks to 15 parks in Irma’s path in Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and the Caribbean.

At Big Cypress National Preserve in eastern Collier County, crews are clearing downed trees along one road that had water too high to access for more than a week after the storm.

The Naples Daily News reports that another Southwest Florida park, the Gulf Coast Visitor Center at the Everglades City entrance to Everglades National Park, could be closed for months with the winter tourist season on its way.

Republished with permission of The 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.

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