Tamara Lush, Author at Florida Politics

Tamara Lush

Florida recovers, rests, reflects in wake of Hurricane Irma

Across Florida, people spent Sunday trying to get back to normal after one of the worst storms to hit the state since Hurricane Andrew.

Keys residents were allowed to visit Monroe County for the first time since Hurricane Irma struck a week ago. Elsewhere, residents are waiting for electricity, cleaning up from floods or just trying to take a breath and remember what normal is like.

Officials are still tallying the damage, which includes everything from homes to grapefruit groves to mom-and-pop attractions like Pirate’s Town in Orlando, which was a replica of an 18th-century sailing vessel that offered dinner theater to tourists. In Miami, schools are expected to open Monday, even though some don’t have air conditioning. Also Monday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue is expected to take a helicopter tour of Florida’s hard hit crops in the central core of the state.

Nowhere, save for the Panhandle, was untouched.

Julie Botteri and her husband had been anxiously waiting to return to their home and rental property in Marathon. They arrived Saturday morning to find minimal damage other than outdoor repairs including a fence that needs to be replaced. They know they’re among the lucky ones. Friends whose home was red tagged and have no power are staying with them. The small island chain is a close-knit community, especially during storm clean-up.

Her husband, who manages a local dive shop, was out Sunday assessing the roof there and whether the boat still runs.

The attitude throughout the island is work, work, work.

“It’s a busy scene, there’s utility crews everywhere, everyone is working tirelessly to get everyone back with power, back with running water, clean water,” Botteri said during a phone interview Sunday.

“Everybody is just pitching in … It will be a beautiful island chain again.”

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long says the government response to Hurricane Irma has shifted from saving lives to recovery. There were more than 40 storm-related deaths.

Long said at a briefing Friday that good progress is being made in getting people back into their homes or into temporary housing such as apartments or hotels. About 4,000 people remain in emergency shelters, and 675,000 accounts – both residential and commercial – are still without power.

Federal officials are focused on restoring electrical power and getting gasoline into areas suffering fuel shortages. Long said the lack of electricity has affected supplies because many gas stations have not been retrofitted to run their pumps on generator power.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who appeared with Long, urged people still without electricity in Florida and other affected states to be patient. He said the severe damage from Irma’s winds will require that parts of the power grid to effectively be rebuilt.

Perry said 60,000 utility workers from the U.S. and Canada are working to get power back on. But electricity wasn’t the only concern.

In Jacksonville, officials worried about pollution in runoff mingling with floodwaters. In Naples, in the southwest corner of the state, residents of one mobile home park are living in condemned homes because they have nowhere else to go. And in Pasco County, north of Tampa, thousands were urged to evacuate a week after Irma’s rains overflowed the Withlacoochee River.

In the Florida Keys, probably the state’s hardest-hit area, Monroe County Mayor George Neugent said they’d already done some difficult work but had more to do to help residents “get back to work, so we can get our businesses running, so we can get our economy going.”

Officials warned residents who weren’t prepared to take care of themselves for at least several weeks stay away so they don’t deplete already limited resources. That means providing their own food, water and shelter.

Twenty-one checkpoints were set up in the hardest hit neighborhoods to ensure only residents, contractors and relief workers were allowed in. There is a heavy police and military presence, along with strict curfews, because of looting.

State Rep. Holly Raschein said the Keys are a resilient community.

“You’re not going to come home to the same neighborhood…, but we will rebuild,” she said.

Lush reported from St. Petersburg, Florida.

After Irma, Tampa area still at risk but not fully prepared

As monster Hurricane Irma buzz-sawed its way up Florida’s Gulf Coast, it looked for several hours like the heavily populated Tampa Bay area could face catastrophic wind damage and flooding from the first major storm to roar ashore there in 96 years.

There was good reason to worry. Since 1921, when about 120,000 people lived there, the region has added three million residents and tens of thousands of new homes along low-lying waterfront property.

The storm left Tampa and St. Petersburg with only power outages and downed tree limbs to contend with. But many are wondering: Was Irma merely a dress rehearsal for The Big One?

Study after study has shown the Tampa region is among the world’s most vulnerable when it comes to major storms. Yet so far it has failed to take some key precautions, such as burying power lines, ending the practice of filling and building in wetlands and putting brakes on residential development.

“Floridians live for the day,” said Florida historian Gary Mormino of St. Petersburg. “You come here for paradise, and you don’t want to pay for ensuring paradise for the future. We dodged the big one this time, but there will be a reckoning someday.”

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told an AP reporter Sunday morning that he expected his Davis Islands home to flood and was bracing for 5 to 8 feet (1.5 to 2.4 meters) of storm surge. “I think our day has come,” he said in a somber voice.

By Monday, his tone was giddily cheerful, after his city and home weren’t destroyed as predicted.

“We continue to acknowledge that our number will come up at some point. We can’t go another 90 years without a direct hit. We came close last night. I look at this as an opportunity to perfect our plan,” he said.

Davis Islands, where Buckhorn and his family live, are a prime example of the freewheeling development ethic of the region – and the entire state. Initially, there were two small islands, but an enterprising developer in the 1920s dredged the bay and filled them in with mud, then planned a resort-like community with lavish Mediterranean-style homes. Today, a mix of homes and condos stands there. It’s where baseball player Derek Jeter lives in a 30,000-square foot waterfront home. Also on the island: Tampa General Hospital.

“Why would you put a hospital on an island?” said Mormino. “It’s insane, but it hasn’t failed in 97 years.”

To be sure, Tampa General says it has a plan for storms and can withstand them. But recent storms, such as Irma and even Harvey in Texas, make policymakers wonder what more can be done now that the area’s packed with people and infrastructure. Buckhorn, a Democrat, says that while he’s not willing to blame Irma on climate change, he believes a serious discussion about climate change and rising seas must happen soon.

“We’re a low lying area, a city on the water with 100-year-old infrastructure and 2017 growth patterns,” he said. “We live in Florida where people want to live on the water. None of that I can change. I’m trying to be an advocate for investment in infrastructure.”

A 2013 World Bank study that ranked cities according to their vulnerability to major storms placed Tampa at number seven among all cities in the world. A report released in June by CoreLogic, a global property information firm, said nearly 455,000 Tampa Bay homes could be damaged by hurricane storm surges, the most in any major U.S. metro area except Miami and New York City. And rebuilding all those homes could cost $80.6 billion, the report said.

In 2016, the risk-management consultancy Karen Clark & Co. said Tampa Bay is the nation’s most vulnerable metro area to storm surge flooding caused by a once-in-century hurricane. The Boston-based firm said Tampa Bay acts as a “large funnel” for surges, forcing water into narrow channels and bayous with nowhere else to go.

And that’s what was forecast for a several-hour spell Sunday morning: catastrophic storm surges, hours of 130 mph (209 kph) winds and massive destruction.

Instead, the Tampa Bay region was hit with tropical storm-force winds and 4 inches (10 centimeters) of rain.

Irma is also making residents reflect on what they did right, and wrong – and what they’ll do next time a storm swirls toward the region.

“We’re talking about things that we would do differently, with food and packing and things to bring and things not to bring,” said Nancy Schiaparelli, who fled with her husband and pets from their home in an evacuation zone in St. Petersburg, to a hotel about three miles away. She now wishes they’d brought canned food and not packaged food, fewer board games and more DVDs, and “probably overdid it for the pets.”

“Too much stuff. We have a dog, a cat and a guinea pig … But what if we couldn’t get back home? You just never know how bad it’s going to be,” said the 61-year-old as she packed up her SUV on Monday in the hotel parking lot.

Patrick Salerno, a 70-year-old retiree, evacuated from North Redington Beach to a hotel. He’s not so sure he will evacuate next time because he doesn’t think the forecasters get the storm’s path right, anyway.

“After watching Texas, everyone was afraid not to evacuate. But seeing a lot of people die and a lot of damage, the magnitude of that storm, I guess people figured, better safe than sorry,” he shrugged, as he waited in his truck to get back onto the barrier island where he lived. “In the old days, we’d just wait for the storms to come and get plenty of beer.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

‘Pray for us’: Hurricane Irma begins its assault on Florida

Announcing itself with roaring 130 mph winds, Hurricane Irma plowed into the mostly emptied-out Florida Keys early Sunday for the start of what could be a slow, ruinous march up the state’s west coast toward the heavily populated Tampa-St. Petersburg area.

With an estimated 127,000 huddling in shelters statewide, the storm lashed the low-lying string of islands with drenching rain and knocked out power to over 1 million customers across Florida.

About 30,000 people heeded orders to evacuate the Keys as the storm closed in, but an untold number refused to leave, in part because to many storm-hardened residents, staying behind in the face of danger is a point of pride.

“The most important thing is to pray for us,” Gov. Rick Scott said on NBC.

The Republican governor said he spoke to President Donald Trump, and “everything I’ve asked out of the federal government, he’s made sure he gave us.”

While the projected track showed Irma raking the state’s Gulf Coast, forecasters warned that the entire Florida peninsula – including the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people – was in extreme danger from the monstrous storm, almost 400 miles wide.

Nearly 7 million people in the Southeast were warned to get out of the storm’s path, including 6.4 million in Florida alone.

Once the storm passes, “we’re going to need a lot of help,” the governor warned. But also described Florida as “a tough state. We’re going to come through this.”

Irma made landfall in the U.S. at Cudjoe Key in the lower Keys, forecasters said.

As of 8 a.m. EDT, the hurricane was centered about 20 miles (30 kilometers) southeast of Key West, moving northwest at 8 mph (13 kph).

As the hurricane’s eye approached the Keys early Sunday, 60-year-old Carol Walterson Stroud and her family were huddled in a third-floor apartment at a senior center in Key West.

“We are good so far,” she said in a text message just before 5:30 a.m. “It’s blowing hard.”

Key West Police urged anyone riding out the storm in that city to “resist the urge” to go outside during the eye, the deceptive calm interlude in the middle of a hurricane. “Dangerous winds will follow quickly,” police said in a Facebook post.

Irma was at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, with a peak wind speed of 185 mph (300 kph) last week.

It left more than 20 people dead across the Caribbean, and as it moved north over the Gulf of Mexico’s bathtub-warm water of nearly 90 degrees, regained strength.

Forecasters said Irma could hit the Tampa-St. Petersburg areas early Monday.

The Tampa Bay area has not taken a direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921, when its population was about 10,000, National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. Now around 3 million people live there.

The governor activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard, and 30,000 guardsmen from elsewhere were on standby.

In the Orlando area, Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World all closed on Saturday. The Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando airports shut down.

Given its mammoth size and strength and its projected course, Irma could prove one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit Florida and inflict damage on a scale not seen here in 25 years.

Hurricane Andrew smashed into suburban Miami in 1992 with winds topping 165 mph (265 kph), damaging or blowing apart over 125,000 homes. The damage in Florida totaled $26 billion, and at least 40 people died.

As Confederate monuments fall, group calls for restoration

After Confederate monument was taken down in Bradenton, a group that wants to preserve such monuments called Tuesday for it to be repaired and restored to its former place on the courthouse lawn.

Save Southern Heritage and other groups held a news conference in front of the Manatee County Courthouse to demand that the local government put the 93-year-old monument back on its pedestal in downtown Bradenton.

The county commission removed the monument Aug. 24, at a cost of $12,500, following an Aug. 21 protest that drew several hundred people who demanded its removal. The obelisk engraved with the names of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee is in storage until county leaders can figure out where to put it; some have recommended a local cemetery where Confederate soldiers are buried. The monument was damaged during the removal.

This is the latest skirmish over Confederate monuments in Florida.

Orlando removed a monument and St. Petersburg removed a marker. In Jacksonville recently, people packed City Hall to discuss Confederate monuments during a public comment portion of a meeting. In Hollywood, a city in South Florida, leaders will vote Wednesday on whether to rename streets named after Confederate generals, including one named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was also the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Critics have called such monuments symbols of white supremacy and racism. Supporters of such monuments say they are reminders of Southern heritage.

“History can’t be broken, divided or reversed to accommodate anyone’s political agenda,” said Bradenton resident Barbara Hemingway. She’s with the group America First – Team Manatee, a pro-President Donald Trump group that has come out against moving such monuments, as has Trump himself.

Hemingway spoke during Tuesday’s news conference and said that the opposition groups – Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and “anarchists” – are out-of-towners trying to “bully” the community.

The group called for the resignation of county leaders who voted to remove the monument, and said all such monuments in Florida should be protected.

Southern Heritage has also been involved in fighting the removal of a statue in downtown Tampa. Commissioners there ruled that the Confederate monument in front of that county’s courthouse would be moved if the community raised $140,000 to help defray the cost. Within 24 hours and aided by the city’s three professional sports teams, the community did, and the monument is set to be relocated in coming weeks to a private cemetery.

Save Southern Heritage drew criticism recently for sending out a “report” and spreadsheet that included the personal information, photos and “affiliation” of more than 100 people who spoke in favor of moving the monument at the July 19 County Commission meeting.

The Tampa Bay Times reports the listed affiliations include specific groups or movements, such as “Democrat” and “Black Lives Matter,” and more general descriptions such as “anti-Trump,” ”LGBT,” ”Muslim” and “resentful black man.” One man was described as being “anti-law enforcement.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Lawmaker: Governor’s office broke promise to LGBTQs

When 49 people were killed at a gay nightclub in Florida in 2016, Gov. Rick Scott publicly offered his sympathy to the victims’ families and the LGBT community.

“These are individuals. Let’s love every one of them,” he said then.

Behind the scenes, gay rights advocates say his staffers went a step further, promising to pursue an executive order prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ state workers and contractors. More than a year later, no such order has been issued.

The advocates believe the order has become even more important in the past couple of weeks as the U.S. Justice Department, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, filed court papers in a New York case saying that sexual orientation is not covered by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The law bans workplace discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, however, enforces the law against private employers and says sexual orientation is covered.

The Republican governor wouldn’t talk about the alleged commitment his staff made when asked by an Associated Press reporter on Tuesday. But he said federal guidelines protect the gay community and the state follows them.

State Rep. Carlos Smith, a gay Democrat, accused Scott of using the nightclub shooting to his political advantage.

“Many political leaders used the tragedy at Pulse to leverage their own political careers and to make promises to our community that they could have delivered on but they did not,” Smith said at a recent forum for Orlando’s gay and Latino communities. A majority of the Pulse victims were gay Latinos.

After the Pulse massacre, the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, the gay advocates said two members of the governor’s staff met at a hotel with leaders from the group Equality Florida.

The governor’s staffers — then-chief of staff Kim McDougal and legislative affairs director Kevin Reilly — asked what could be done to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community, and the advocates answered that he should issue the anti-discrimination order, according to the Equality Florida representatives.

“They sat with us and said, ‘This is something that is important.’ This was an issue they believed could move forward and if there was any problem, any concerns, they would let us know,” Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith said.

Nothing happened.

When asked about the matter in Tampa on Tuesday, Scott wouldn’t say if he would sign such an order or had changed his mind.

“I think it’s important that everybody in our state feels comfortable and never feel discriminated against and that’s what’s important to me,” Scott said.

Reilly and McDougal didn’t respond to emails and a phone call.

Scott often has had a chilly relationship with the gay community. The governor supported Florida’s attempt to defend its ban on gay marriage, which eventually was struck down by federal courts and he campaigned against adoptions by gays and lesbians in 2010. After the Pulse attack, he was criticized for calling the attack a terrorist act but neglecting, initially, to note it targeted the LGBTQ community, though he would later mention the community in speeches and interviews. The Pulse gunman had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State group.

An executive order from the governor would be important for Jim Brenner, and his husband, Chuck Jones, because now there’s too much ambiguity on whether gay state workers are protected from discrimination, said Brenner, who retired last September from his job as fire management administrator at the Florida Forestry Division in Tallahassee. His husband still works for the state Education Department.

Jim Brenner and his husband, Chuck Jones, talk about gay rights and discrimination in Florida.

Brenner, who is widely published in trade periodicals, believes his sexual orientation hindered his career promotions.

“Peers felt I did a very good job, but I got to a certain point where things just came to a screeching halt,” Brenner said. “I believe it’s because of sexual orientation. Everybody knew that I was living with someone and that someone wasn’t a woman.”

Republish with permission of The Associated Press.

As Pasco County sinkhole widens, some are determined to stay put

The Florida sinkhole that swallowed two homes last week isn’t getting any deeper, but it’s getting wider, officials said Wednesday — and one resident who’s back home after being evacuated is vowing to stay unless the hole consumes her house.

“I’m apprehensive, a little nervous,” said Patty Camunas, 57, whose family lives near the sinkhole.

But she added, “Where are you going to go? There are sinkholes all over Florida. Unless something happens that the sinkhole takes my house, I don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon.”

Camunas was at work Friday morning when the sinkhole swallowed one house about 200 feet behind hers. Her husband and daughter were home when officials told them to evacuate. They were allowed to return Saturday but decided to give it an additional 24 hours. On Sunday, they returned.

“The only thing we lost is the food from the power being shut off,” she said.

Now, she said, the main commotion on her cul-de-sac is from curious people driving to the neighborhood to take selfies with the sinkhole in the background.

During a news conference Wednesday, officials in Pasco County — a suburban area north of Tampa — said that because of the sinkhole’s growth, residents of two additional homes in the neighborhood have been warned they may need to evacuate. They were told to gather their possessions in preparation of leaving, said Kevin Guthrie, Pasco County’s assistant administrator for public safety.

Five homes near the sinkhole already had been evacuated.

“This is not a time for panic. We have somebody out here monitoring this sinkhole, monitoring the expansion. We will let people know in plenty of time that they need to get their stuff together and be ready to go,” Guthrie said. “When we say, ‘Now is the time to leave.’ It’s time to leave. It’s not time to pack things up.”

The edges of the sinkhole are caving in because there’s no support for the sandy soil as it dries out, officials said.

It’s now about 235 feet (72 meters) wide, about 10 feet (3 meters) wider than it was several days ago. It remains 50 feet (15 meters) deep.

As the water in the sinkhole recedes, the sand on the right-angled banks can’t support the weight of the ground and it’s giving away. Engineers believe the solution lies in quickly getting dirt into the area to create a sloping bank that can keep the edges of the sinkhole from falling in, Guthrie said.

“We’re working to that end right now,” Guthrie said.

Engineers hope to start bringing in dirt and removing debris over the weekend, or early next week.

None of 20 water wells tested came back positive for E. coli, but water samples from 17 of the wells will be re-tested for any signs of contamination. Greg Crumpton, a local health official, said elements found in water from those wells may be the result of improper maintenance by homeowners, but health officials want to make sure it’s not from the sinkhole.

Pasco County’s risk manager has told officials that the response to the sinkhole could cost at least $1.5 million but it will be likely much more, Guthrie said.

For Camunas, a lifelong Florida resident who built her home in Pasco in 1982, sinkholes are part of life. She’d heard about a sinkhole in years past in another part of her subdivision.

Florida is highly prone to naturally occurring sinkholes because there are caverns below ground of limestone, a porous rock that easily dissolves in water.

Acidic rain can, over time, eat away the limestone and natural caverns that lie under much of the state, causing sinkholes. Both extremely dry weather and very wet weather can trigger sinkholes. State geologists generally consider March-September “sinkhole season” because that’s when the state receives most of its rainfall.

In 2013 in Florida, a 37-year-old man was killed when a hole opened up underneath his bedroom. That sinkhole, which garnered international headlines, opened in Hillsborough County, about an hour south of the sinkhole that swallowed two homes this month.

Engineering experts said it was too dangerous to retrieve the man’s body, so they demolished the home and filled the hole with gravel.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

State officials: Racing greyhounds test positive for cocaine

At least 12 greyhound racing dogs in Florida have tested positive for cocaine, and their trainer has had his license suspended.

It’s at least the second instance this year of racing greyhounds testing positive for cocaine. The dogs raced at Bestbet Orange Park in northeast Florida near Jacksonville. The state is home to 12 of the 19 dog tracks in the U.S., where 40 states have outlawed the sport.

Although supporters say the dogs are treated well, the industry faces intense scrutiny. Records show Florida’s greyhound industry has had 62 cocaine positives since 2008.

In the Jacksonville area case, first reported by WTLV-TV, the dogs tested positive in March and April for benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine, according to documents from the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The documents are dated June 9 and say that trainer Charles McClellan “is a threat to animals in his control, custody and care.”

The Associated Press could not locate a phone number or email address for McClellan, but he told the TV station he had lost his job as a Greyhound trainer. The agency has scheduled a formal hearing on his case for Aug. 23.

In a statement to news outlets, Bestbet Orange Park said it supports the swift action taken by the state in suspending the trainer’s license. During March and April, McClellan was an employee of the Steve Sarras Kennel.

Sarras, of West Virginia, did not respond to a Facebook message and did not answer a phone call seeking comment. He also serves on the National Greyhound Association Board.

Racing dogs often are owned by one or more people. They are then placed with a kennel and have a trainer. The trainers are often independent contractors and are responsible for the animals’ well-being. They also are the ones disciplined if something amiss is discovered.

In May, the state revoked the license of a St. Petersburg trainer whose dogs tested positive for cocaine.

Carey Theil, executive director of GREY2K USA in Boston, a track monitoring group that opposes greyhound racing, called the most recent cased “breathtaking” because of the number of dogs that tested positive.

Regulators don’t typically investigate how the dogs got cocaine in their systems, and it’s unclear in the latest case how that happened. But Theil said the most likely scenarios are someone trying to fix races, or the trainer using the drug and the dogs coming in contact by accident.

One of the dogs in the latest case tested positive six times, including during a race where it finished first. The records showed the dog had cocaine in its system for two of its best races, Theil said.

(Story by The Associated Press, reprinted with permission.)

Body farm for researchers and detectives opens near Tampa

A “body farm” where researchers can study how corpses decompose will open next week in the Tampa Bay area with the burial of four donated bodies.

Officials broke ground Friday on the Adam Kennedy Forensics Field, a five-acre patch of land north of Tampa. It’s the seventh such facility in the nation and the first in Florida’s subtropical environment. The oldest and most famous body farm in the U.S. is at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Officials in Florida hope their farm, to be used at first by detectives and forensic anthropologists at the nearby University of South Florida, will draw scientists from other countries and grow to be the largest in the world.

“Our forensic crime scene investigators will get premium training as a result of this,” said former Pasco County Sheriff Bob White. “This will enhance our training tenfold.”

Dr. Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist at USF, predicts that by studying how bodies react in Florida’s sweltering humidity, more evidence will be preserved and breakthroughs made in real-life cases. The research also would benefit other countries with subtropical and tropical climates, she said.

Bodies are obtained by donation. The first four will be buried next week, and in January, Kimmerle and other researchers will hold a course for detectives on exhumation. Later, other bodies will be exposed to water and buried during different seasons to determine how different factors affect decomposition and evidence. After the bodies are studied, the skeletons will be cleaned and preserved and made available for future research.

“The legacy of the donations, it is forever,” said Kimmerle.

About 30 people have already filled out paperwork to donate their bodies to the farm when they die. Kimmerle said if someone who wants to donate dies within 200 miles of the facility, researchers will pick up the body at no cost. Anyone beyond that range would have to pay for their body to be transported to the facility.

While the center is currently a field and grove of trees near the Pasco County Jail, officials eventually hope to build an indoor-outdoor training center that would include classrooms, a morgue, a training facility and evidence storage.

The Florida Legislature tucked $4.3 million for the facility in this year’s state budget, but it’s unclear whether Gov. Rick Scott will approve the budget. Kimmerle and Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said they’ll also raise outside money for the project.

For now, researchers are concentrating on the science. The field is named after one of the people who will be buried next week.

Adam Kennedy, a 46-year-old principal at a local elementary school, died in a car wreck in January. His widow Abigail Kennedy said her husband always wanted to donate his body to science. On Friday, she spoke to a crowd at the forensics field.

“There’s so much bittersweet in all of this. Adam wanted to continue teaching after his death,” she said. “It would be my last gift to education, he’d say. This couldn’t be more perfect.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Tom Rooney faces raucous crowd at town hall meeting

It took about three minutes for the majority of the crowd at Florida Congressman Tom Rooney‘s town hall meeting Monday to start booing about everything from the environment to health care.

“You are supporting an appropriations bill to help clean up the Everglades. You recently voted to repeal a rule that allows coal companies to dump toxic ash in waterways throughout the whole country. Would you care to explain?” one man asked.

“We don’t live in a perfect world,” said the Republican congressman, standing alone in front of a podium on stage at the Englewood Event Center.

And that’s when the shouting started.

“That was quick,” quipped Rooney, who’s in his fifth term in Congress and represents a swath of rural and suburban counties in the middle of Florida, roughly from Lake Okeechobee to the east and toward Venice on the Gulf Coast.

Little more than a month into President Donald Trump‘s administration, Republican members of Congress are returning home to encounter crowds of concerned and, at times, raucous voters, pressing for explanations of the president’s plans for health care, immigration policies and cabinet appointees, among other things.

Those subjects came up repeatedly at Monday’s two-hour event. At times, it devolved into a holler-fest between Rooney, anti-Trump voters and pro-Trump voters.

Said Rooney, throwing his hands in the air: “So you want Trump to fail?”

The crowd screamed and clapped. One person yelled, “Yes, he already is failing!”

A Trump supporter screamed a response from the back: “You people suck!”

It appeared that a majority of the 300-strong crowd were retired, white and opposed to Trump. People grilled Rooney on the Affordable Care Act, pleading with him not to vote for a plan that doesn’t cover pre-existing medical conditions. Rooney replied that any health care revision ought to cover pre-existing medical conditions.

Another person asked what, if anything, Congress or the voters could do to prevent further erosion of the public’s trust. Many who attended, Republicans and Democrats alike, said they’d like to see the country less polarized, but that didn’t stop them from shouting their frustrations about the opposite party and politicians in general.

“A lot of people think that being a member of Congress is somehow us riding around in limos,” Rooney said. “I’m not looking for sympathy. Our approval rating is below Fidel Castro’s, and he’s dead.”

Several asked about Trump and Russia, and whether anyone on Trump’s campaign team was influenced by Russian operatives.

Rooney, who’s on the House Intelligence Committee, said, “we have zero evidence that the Russian government and the Trump campaign coordinated in any way.”

The 46-year-old congressman also offered some dire predictions about Social Security and said it must be fixed, otherwise younger generations will be out of luck.

“I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat, if you hate my guts or if you voted for me. I’m telling the truth. If we don’t fix our retirement programs now, I’m not getting Social Security,” he said. “Do you not want that for your kids and grandchildren?”

The room erupted in various shouts about “the cap.”

Asked whether he wants to see Trump release his tax returns, Rooney said he believes presidents should do so.

He added, however, “The people didn’t care. He’s president.”

“We care!” people chanted.

“We don’t care!” A man in a Make America Great hat yelled.

In the end, everyone agreed on one thing: Rooney showed guts, standing up in front of a room full of angry voters. He said he was going to Washington Tuesday to vote, and walked off stage to a smattering of applause.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

A rose for family of U.S. plantation owner executed by Fidel Castro

One of Miami’s oldest cemeteries is so close to the Fidel Castro death celebrations at Café Versailles in Little Havana that its marble angels echo with conga-line cheers from Calle Ocho.

Most of the people interred at Caballero Woodlawn Cemetery-North on Southwest Eighth Street — the many Cubans buried there, for sure — hoped to live long enough to hear the celebrations.

There’s Jorge Mas Canosa, a Bay of Pigs veteran and founder of the Cuban American National Foundation, resting in his tomb under Cuban and American flags. A few rows over is Carlos Prio Socarras, Cuba’s president from 1948 until 1952 and an outspoken Castro critic. His grave is adorned with a Cuban flag mosaic.

And then there’s the grave of the family of Robert Fuller, a burnished bronze marker set in the lush grass. It’s not as flashy as the others, and Fuller’s body isn’t even there. But he’s important to students of Cuban history as one of a small group of Cuban-Americans who tried to overthrow Castro six months before the Bay of Pigs invasion.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016 photo, Frances R. Fuller points to a photo in Life Magazine, dated Oct. 31, 1960, with the photo, of her brother Robert Fuller, center, flanked by parents William Fuller, left, Jennie Fuller, right, at her home in Miami. In 1960, Robert Fuller joined an ill-fated mission to lead a boatload of poorly trained Cubans from Miami in hopes of mustering up a counter-revolution on the island. Instead, the men were quickly captured, and Fuller confessed under torture to counterrevolutionary activities. Fuller was sentenced to death by firing squad. The family asked to bring his body back with them to America. Castro’s people said no. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

“Grandma, I wish you were here to see this,” Robert Fuller’s niece, Katherine, said Tuesday, bending with a delicate pink rose in her hand over the grave of Jennie Fuller — Robert’s mother — and other relatives.

After Castro’s forces seized power in Havana in 1959, the new regime “repeatedly harassed and threatened” members of the Fuller family and sought to seize the 10,000-acre agricultural business they had operated since 1903, according to the family’s lawsuit against Cuba.

Robert Fuller, who had dual Cuban and U.S. citizenship, was born on the Holguin plantation in 1934 and felt Cuban, Katherine said, even after serving as a U.S. marine in Korea. In 1960, at 25, he joined an ill-fated mission to lead a boatload of poorly trained Cubans from Miami in hopes of mustering up a counter-revolution on the island.

Instead, the men were quickly captured, and Fuller confessed under torture to counterrevolutionary activities. According to an Associated Press dispatch from Havana on his trial, he told the court that he joined the invaders because the Castro government had taken over his father’s ranch, “earned by the sweat of his brow and very honorably.”

His mother, Jennie sobbed in the courtroom where, in front of jeering crowds, Fuller was sentenced to death by firing squad. The family asked to bring his body back with them to America. Castro’s people said no. Jennie Fuller left Cuba, never to return, and her son remains buried somewhere on the island in an unmarked mass grave, court records say.

In 2006, a Miami-Dade judge awarded the family $400 million in damages after Cuba ignored their lawsuit. A decade later, they haven’t seen a dime.

Katherine Fuller was born in Miami two years after her uncle was executed, and raised in both the Cuban and American traditions of her family. Now 55, she still lives in the city where her uncle is remembered as a hero. There’s even a street in Little Havana named after him.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016 photo, Frances R. Fuller, left, and her niece Kathrine Fuller, right, sister and niece respectively, of Robert Fuller, show photos of Fuller at their home in Miami. In 1960, Robert Fuller joined an ill-fated mission to lead a boatload of poorly trained Cubans from Miami in hopes of mustering up a counter-revolution on the island. Instead, the men were quickly captured, and Fuller confessed under torture to counterrevolutionary activities. Fuller was sentenced to death by firing squad. The family asked to bring his body back with them to America. Castro’s people said no. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

Castro’s death was a joyful moment, she said, but also bittersweet. None of the exiled members of the family has ever returned to Cuba. Katherine always was too afraid when Castro was alive, given her surname’s notoriety on the island. More than anything, Fuller wonders why Castro ruined “such a rich treasure of an island.”

But she also knows that her own history and family’s legacy are intertwined with Castro’s. Her grandmother and other relatives have carried the pain of Robert Fuller’s execution all their lives.

Jennie Fuller grew her hair long and it flowed to her waist in a thick braid.

“We’d say to her, ‘Grandma, when are you going to cut your hair?’ ” Katherine Fuller recalled. “And she’d always say, ‘I’ll cut my hair when Castro falls.’ “

Jennie Fuller died in 2001, her long hair intact.

But the rose bushes she planted at the family’s Miami property in 1959 lived on.

On Tuesday, Fuller slipped the little pink rose from those bushes alongside a bouquet of lilies on the family’s Thanksgiving table, and expressed cautious optimism about Cuba’s future. She’s in favor of lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba if the Cuban government is willing to give people on the island more freedom, something President Barack Obama called for. She thinks it’s possible with Castro’s passing.

“I think what Obama has done is the first step,” she said, referring to the president’s relaxing of travel regulations.

Katherine is even considering a trip to the island now that Castro’s gone. Somehow it seems safer. She’d like to meet her other relatives, and see the plantation her grandparents once owned.

But first, there’s some living to do in Miami.

“We’re going to go to Versailles now,” she said softly. “We’ll have a coffee, and a pastry.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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