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Teresa Jacobs expresses frustration over lack of FEMA, state coordination plans to help evacuees

Federal and state comprehensive, strategic plans are desperately needed to coordinate services for Hurricane Maria evacuees from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands so that they can best find the services wherever they’re available in Florida, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said Tuesday.

Jacobs warned that someone needs to be coordinating where tens of thousands of island evacuees should consider going, because of the availability of  housing, health care, education, and other services can be provided for them, or they’re all going to wind up in the same places, where there may be limited services available while the rest of the state goes untapped.

“We’re frustrated. I’m frustrated. I think everyone is frustrated,” Jacobs said.

“What we need to be mindful of is there is no one city or county or even region that can handle all the evacuees and provide them the resources and the services that they need,” she said. “This is something we have communicated on numerous occasions to the state.”

Her declaration at the Orange County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday came after reports through Commissioner Betsy VanderLey, that the biggest charity health care clinic organizations in the county, Shepherd’s Hope and Grace Medical Home, were on the verge of being overwhelmed, and the annual budget for Orange County’s Primary Care Access Network could be burned up in two months just attending to evacuees’ health care needs.

VanderLey wanted a discussion of health care services, but Jacobs insisted the discussion needed to be far bigger.

Already more than 40,000 people have arrived at Orlando International Airport from the islands, most fleeing total devastation and looking for a place to be able to live, at least temporarily until their homes are inhabitable again, and another 126,000 are expected in the next couple of months, Jacobs said.

“What you’re raising here is a symptom of a much bigger problem right this minute: That is what we need for evacuees coming to Florida and also to around the country, but a very large number are coming to Florida, and a very large number are coming to Central Florida, a really comprehensive, well-thought-out strategy, to make sure that evacuees, U.S. citizens that arrive here from Puerto Rico, have the resources that they need from housing, to access to transportation, to educational capacity in our schools, to the medical assistance that they need,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs frustration comes three weeks after she deferred to the state and federal emergency management agencies, rather than set up a coordination of services at the local level, as had been requested by three Orange commissioners, Emily Bonilla, Jennifer Thompson, and Pete Clarke.  That has drawn backlash criticism from several area leaders in the Puerto Rican community who said Jacobs was punting responsibility. But she had argued then that only the state and federal agencies could coordinate statewide as needed to be done, and anything Orange County or any other local government would try to do might only get in the way.

But that coordination never came, she said.

“Where I’ve grown frustrated, and I know Osceola County is growing frustrated as well, is we still do not have a strategic plan from either FEMA or the state Department of Emergency Management,” she said.

Florida Department of Emergency Management Communications Director Alberto Moscoso responded that the state was working closely with FEMA on assistance now including hotel vouches, but that disaster survivor sheltering “is a local initiative.”

“It is important to note that FEMA provides disaster survivor housing programs, while disaster survivor sheltering is a local initiative,” he said. “However, the state proactively and aggressively sought and secured a host state agreement to provide a 100 percent reimbursement mechanism for our community sheltering efforts. Currently, volunteer organizations, working through state coordinated airport relief centers, are providing hotel vouchers to evacuees. In addition, DEM is working with our Federal and local partners to explore and consider all available solutions with regards to housing Hurricane Maria survivors.”

Jacobs said she and leaders in Osceola and Seminole counties are preparing a jointly-signed letter to state and federal authorities, requesting a comprehensive plan, and also asking them to come to Central Florida for a meeting to better coordinate the direction of evacuees and services.

“This is a problem bigger than we can solve,” she said.


Florida Citrus Sports seeking addition $1M to support Pro Bowl

Florida Citrus Sports is asking Orange County for an additional $1 million in tourist tax dollars to support the 2018 NFL Pro Bowl game at Camping World Stadium.

The not-for-profit organization that operates Camping World Stadium was the key player last year in a whirl-wind effort to convince the NFL to move its end-of-the-year all star game from the long-time host city of Honolulu to Orlando for at least two years, probably at least three, and possibly longer.

To make the deal happen last year Orange County approved $1 million a year in tourist tax money to be used for incentives, and also provided another $350,000 that had previously been programmed for something else. The deal struck in a hurry in the spring of 2016 also called for another $1 million this year, and another $1 million set aside for next year, assuming that Florida Citrus Sports and the NFL exercise the third-year option on their agreement.

But the price has gone up, to a $2 million tourist tax ask for the 2018 Pro Bowl. That should have been expected, said Florida Citrus Sports Chief Executive Officer Steve Hogan.

“Last year I acknowledged that year two, I wouldn’t actually know what to ask for until we got to year two,” Hogan said. “The factors that are forcing an increase are the rights fee to the NFL incrasesd for year two. Second, the [Kickoff Classic] dollars, as you know tourism development tax already had a placeholder for kickoff dollars that we were able to use for year one, which we can’t us for year two, because that’ll be used for the Louisville-Alabama game to open the season.”

That was $350,000 that was programmed for the 2017 Pro Bowl above the $1 million the county had committed earlier.

On Sept. 29 the Orange County Tourist Development Council unanimously voted to back the request for the additional $1 million request for the 2018 game, even though there was no explanation provided about what the additional money was for. There also were no questions and no debate at the council’s meeting before the recommendation was approved.

At the Sept. 29 TDC meeting, Hogan reviewed the successes of the 2017 game, noting that it had an economic impact of $40-45 million for the Central Florida economy, and that an estimated 70 percent of the attendees came from outside the region. He also noted the game itself was a sell-out and had higher-than-expected ratings for ESPN.

“I can tell you by every estimate we knocked it out of the park,” Hogan told the council.

Equality Florida endorses Anna Eskamani in HD 47 race

The political committee for Florida’s largest LGBTQ public policy organization is endorsing Anna Eskamani in Florida’s House District 47.

Equality Florida Action Political Action Committee announced Eskamani’s endorsement as the group’s first in the 2018 election cycle, noting that HD 47 is home to both a large lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, as well as the Pulse nightclub, site of the horrific 2016 mass murder and now an international symbol for the community’s fight for rights and acceptance.

Eskamani, an Orlando-based executive with Planned Parenthood and a Democrat, faces Winter Park businessman Stockton Reeves, a Republican, in the 2018 contest.

“House District 47 is going to be one of the most competitive state legislative races of 2018, and we’re putting a marker down for our members and supporters early and clearly. It’s no accident that this is our first 2018 endorsement,” Joe Saunders, Equality Florida’s senior political director and a former member of the Florida House himself, said in a news release issued by Equality Florida.

“Anna Eskamani has a long history of fighting for all marginalized people, especially LGBTQ communities,” Saunders continued. “She’s the real deal and we can’t think of a better person to represent downtown Orlando, Winter Park and South Orlando’s diverse LGBTQ communities. We need her passion, vision and talent in Tallahassee now more than ever.”

Republican incumbent state Rep. Mike Miller of Winter Park is running for Congress rather than a third term.

“I have had the honor of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Equality Florida and our LGBTQ community in efforts to ensure that all people can be their authentic selves without judgement, shame, or fear,” Eskamani said in the release. “I refuse to forget those we lost at Pulse or those whose lives were shattered by the horrific intersection of gun violence and bigotry. When I’m elected I promise to do everything I can to take on discrimination against our LGBTQ community, honor with action those hurt or taken at Pulse and fight for the thousands who die senselessly from gun violence every year.”

Victor Torres seeking FEMA help for housing for Puerto Rico evacuees

State Sen. Victor Torres is urging the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide more housing relief programs in Florida for Puerto Rican and U.S. Virgin Island Hurricane Maria refugees to afford housing in Florida.

Torres’s request follows a similar call earlier this week from the Central Florida Heart of Florida United Way, seeking federal assistance to help tens of thousands of people fleeing storm-ravaged Puerto Rico to come to Florida, when many arrive finding dire options on where to live.

Torres said he’s pushing for FEMA to provide Temporary Stabilization Assistance grants, which would allow Puerto Rico evacuees to use FEMA money immediately to rent hotel or motel rooms for up to 14 days while they find a longer-term place to stay. FEMA also has programs that could provide vouchers for longer term rentals, and set up temporary housing in mobile homes — provided the local governments assist in identifying places to put them.

As of a week ago, more than 60,000 Puerto Ricans had arrived in Florida. Some estimates suggest the number will climb over 100,000. The two primary places they are arriving, Miami and Orlando, already have housing shortages, especially for affordable housing.

“The impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria are placing huge demands on our public services,” Torres said in a news release. “We need to focus on building and expanding more housing options for Floridians and evacuees from the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico who are seeking refuge in our great state.”

Torres gave impassioned testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday when he called on members to increase funds for state education, healthcare and housing needs to accommodate the refugee migration.

Earlier this week, Central Florida Heart of Florida United Way Executive Director Jeff Hayward called on the federal government, through FEMA, to engage in providing support for additional housing options in central Florida.

Torres’ district includes parts of both Orange and Osceola counties which contain the highest concentration of Puerto Ricans living in Florida.

FEMA has designated Florida as a go-to state for evacuees from the islands and approved costs could be eligible for 100 percent reimbursement by the federal government. Torres said he is working with local and state officials for FEMA approval of both the deployment of mobile housing units and authorization of TSA for evacuees to receive rental housing funds.

National Republicans backing both Mike Miller and Scott Sturgill in CD 7

The National Republican Campaign Committee announced Thursday it is backing both state Rep. Mike Miller and his primary challenger Scott Sturgill in the race to take on U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy in Florida’s 7th Congressional District.

The NRCC announced it was including both Miller and Sturgill in its “On the Radar” level of support, among 31 candidates nationally thus designated Thursday. The NRCC also named Bruno Barreiro in Florida’s 27th Congressional District, where there is a scramble to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

The announcement adds fuel to Sturgill’s campaign, signaling a clear race in what many initially considered Miller’s.

Miller, a two-term representative from Winter Park, entered the race in late June and has grabbed a number of big-name endorsements including those of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and former U.S. Sens. Mel Martinez of Orlando and Connie Mack III of Fort Myers.

Yet Sturgill, a small business owner from Sanford who entered the race in mid-July, loaned his own campaign $100,000, and with that raised more money than Miller, $206,000 to $156,000, through the end of September reporting period. He also grabbed the endorsement of Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera.

The district covers Seminole County and much of north central Orange County, and appears to be splitting along county lines between the more conservative Seminole and more moderate Orange.

Murphy, a first-term Democrat from Winter Park, had raised more than $1 million.

Barreiro, a Miami-Dade County commissioner, is one of three Republicans and a half-dozen Democrats making serious runs in CD 27.

Officially an NRCC effort for the past four election cycles, the On the Radar program requires the candidates to hit specific goals throughout the cycle to ensure their campaigns remain competitive, well-funded and communicative within their districts. On the Radar is the first of three levels in the NRCC’s Young Guns program.

“These 31 candidates are formidable competitors against the liberal agenda of Nancy Pelosi and the left,” NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers stated in a news release. “We look forward to working with these candidates to grow our Republican majority and enact policies that help hard working Americans.”

Democrats eying possible takeover of Orange County in 2018

Democrats are looking ahead to the 2018 Orange County elections thinking it might be the year they finally take over county government.

The Orange County Board of County Commissioners and the mayor’s office are officially nonpartisan, but the two main parties in Orange County don’t see it that way. So while voters have the chance to vote strictly by the candidate, behind those candidates the Democrats and Republicans are pushing their own, and seeking to hold onto or take control of Orange County’s agenda.

Since the 1990s the Republicans have dominated county government even though Democrats have increasingly dominated the voter registration. Linda Chapin, the last Democratic Orange County chair [now called mayor,] left office in 1998. The Democrats have not had a majority on the Orange County Board of Commissioners since 1994.

Currently Republicans hold the mayor’s office [Teresa Jacobs] and four of the six county commission districts. This time last year they held five of the six commissioner seats, or six of seven votes including the mayor’s vote.

Next year, Democrats are projecting they would take the mayor’s office and wind up with four, maybe five, of the six seats on the board of commissioners.

“That is the plan,” said Orange County Democratic Chair Wes Hodge.

“Too soon to tell…. I think we’ll be OK, actually,” said his counterpart, Orange County Republican Chair Lew Oliver.

The Democrats have 43 percent of Orange County’s voters, and Republicans just 27 percent, with another 31 percent of voters registering as either independents or minor parties. The Democrats advantage has been steadily widening for years.

The Democrats’ prospects in 2018 are led by their candidate for mayor, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, who’s got a high name recognition, three county-wide election victories, and strong community support, and who is expecting some crossover support from the business community.

The Republicans have three strong candidates in Orange County School Board Chairman Bill Sublette, Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke, and businessman Rob Panepinto, president of Orlando Inc., the greater Orlando chamber of commerce.

Yet in a nonpartisan primary next August, it’s likely Demings will emerge to face one of the Republicans in a runoff election in November — in a county which Democrats now hold a 16-point lead over Republicans in voter registration. The Democrats intend to milk that advantage.

“I have no issue with using our resources to let the voters know who our candidates are,” Hodge said.

Orange County Commissioner Victoria Siplin, one of only two Democrats on the board, is seeking re-election and does not have an opponent yet. It’s a safe district for the Democrats, with a big majority overall in voter registration. Sixty-three percent of all District 2 voters are registered Democrats. Just 10 percent are Republicans.

Right now the Democrats also like their chances to flip Orange County District 4, currently held by term-limited Republican Jennifer Thompson. Three Democrats are vying, Kevin Ballinger, Maribel Gomez Cordero and Nicolette Springer, in a district in which Democrats now have a 16-point advantage in voter registration. Lawyer Gina Perez-Calhoun is running for the Republicans.

With Clarke’s entry into the mayor’s race, that could open up District 3 for a special election next year, provided he doesn’t change his mind by next June. Last week, Orange County Soil & Water Conservation District Chair Eric Rollings, a well-known official expected to get strong party backing, entered the Democratic race.

Democrats have a 15-point advantage in District 3.

Republicans appear to have at least a momentum advantage in keeping the District 2 seat that will be vacated by Bryan Nelson, who is running for mayor of Apopka instead of for re-election. His predecessor, Fred Brummer; Brummer’s former campaign manager, Christine Moore; and Apopka greenhouse grower Mark Byrd all are Republican candidates with established campaigns or campaign experience, and Brummer and Byrd are off to strong starts raising money. Moore just got in.

Democrat Patricia Rumph‘s campaign has not raised much in ten months. Yet she reportedly has been building a ground game. And Democrats actually have a 17-point advantage in voter registration in District 2, thanks to inclusion of much of the Pine Hills neighborhood, a largely African-American community. So Hodge and other Democrats are in no way conceding the district.

But there is a lot left to happen, Republican Chair Oliver said. And there is a reason Republicans have held control for 20-plus years: Orange County voters apparently feel comfortable with what Republicans have done.

“We’ve got a bunch of good candidates either in the wings, or in play,” Oliver said.

At least two prominent Republicans have been mentioned in political circles for Clarke’s District 3 seat, including former Orange County Clerk of Courts Eddie Fernandez and real estate agent Dean Asher, though each has told people he’s not interested at this time. They both have until next June to decide.

The District 2 race could change depending on what happens in the Apopka election in March 2018. Should Nelson lose, he could still file to run for re-election, though he has said he would not do so. Should Democratic Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer lose his re-election bid, he’s been mentioned as a possible Orange County Commission District 2 candidate.

There also is the potential impact of the ongoing migration of people from Puerto Rico, greatly accelerated by a flow of evacuees from the island since Hurricane Maria devastated it. So far, Puerto Ricans have largely registered as either Democrats or independents, not Republicans. The Puerto Rican migration was widely credited for flipping neighboring Osceola County to Democratic control three years ago.

Anguish, relief, fear, hope: Relief efforts serving thousands of Puerto Rico storm refugees

Rene Plasencia sees it in the faces of countless Puerto Rican Hurricane Maria refugees when he or someone else says, “we’re here to help you.”

A mixture of anguish, relief, pain, joy, fear, confidence, hopelessness, hope — all the emotions of losing everything and traveling to a strange, new place with almost nothing, and then encountering someone who at least is there to hold a hand, if not help.

It’s happening hundreds of times a day at Florida’s Puerto Rico Disaster Relief Centers at the Orlando and Miami airports, the Port of Miami, and at LatinoLeadership as well as other local nonprofits reaching out to help people arriving from Puerto Rican homes who are not necessarily looking for a fresh start, but just for a place to live.

Sometimes when home-cooked hot meals are brought in by volunteers, it’s the first home-cooked hot meal people have eaten in a month or more, he said.

“It would blow you away,” said Plasencia, a Republican state Representative from Orlando with Puerto Rican roots. His family runs LatinoLeadership, a social services center in Orlando that is helping about 150 Puerto Ricans walking in each day seeking help, and taking hundreds of calls a day. He’s spending a couple of hours a day there himself, and helping at Orlando International Airport, in the state’s official Disaster Relief Center there.

“It gives me both a sense of hope in humanity, and it also gives me a sense of despair,” he said, “because people have so much need for help.”

It was a month ago, on Sept. 20, that Hurricane Maria completely wiped out much of that island’s housing, power, water supply, hospitals, schools, businesses, and infrastructure,

Since Florida’s official Puerto Rico Disaster Relief Centers opened Oct. 3, at least 60,000 people from the island have arrived in Florida on airplanes and ships. It’s unknown how many of them are actual storm refugees, and how many are relief workers and others shuttling from the island.

But the vast majority are people leaving their beloved, but devastated, homeland.

The three Florida Disaster Relief Centers have directly met with more than 12,000 displaced Puerto Ricans, many representing families or groups sitting outside in the airports or Port of Miami waiting for news on where they can go, and what they can do. Some days, centers assist more than 900 people.

About 4,000-6,000 more people from Puerto Rico are getting off planes in Orlando or Miami every day, said Alberto Moscoso, communications director for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

“Folks coming off the planes are hopeful. Many are intending to return to Puerto Rico when the situation improves, and they’re grateful that the resources are there and the airport has helped them out,” Moscoso said.

Most, he said, are arriving with some sort of plan, and with family in Florida. Yet not all, and housing remains the highest immediate need.

At the centers, they meet with officials from FEMA and the U.S. Veterans Benefits Administration; nine state agencies, including health, children and families, elder affairs, and economic opportunity; a handful of local agencies; and a number of private organizations.

Among those at Orlando International Airport include LatinoLeadership, American Red Cross, United Way, Catholic Charities, Salvation Army, Health Insurance Story, Calvario City Church, Aspire Health Partners, Shepard’s Hope, Halo Office, and the Second Harvest Food Bank.

Puerto Rico relief effort is among  Gov. Rick Scott‘s highest priorities right now,  press secretary Lauren Schenone said.

Plasencia said it shows, not just with the services at the airport, but with the several times a day he said he’s personally calling the governor’s office looking for specific points of help, and getting it.

“The airport is a great service,” he said. “The biggest problem at this point is a lot of the passengers who get off the planes aren’t going to the receiving centers; they’re going off property, and meeting with family, and then maybe a couple days later they’re going back to the receiving center.”

Plasencia, however, was highly critical of the assistance from local governments, particularly Orlando and Orange County.

Two weeks ago Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs declined a request from three county commissioners, Emily Bonilla, Pete Clarke, and Jennifer Thompson, for the county to set up its own Puerto Rico relief efforts, saying it was the state’s role. Last week Plasencia, at a meeting of the Orange County Legislative Delegation, implored her to reconsider.

He said the local efforts are nothing compared with the overwhelming way that Orange County and Orlando responded to the horrific nightclub massacre at Pulse on June 12, 2016.

The county has provided a representative from its Department of Family Services. Orlando has provided a representative from its Hispanic Office for Local Assistance office. The Orange County School Board has provided a representative, as has the Osceola County School Board, and Lynx, the regional public bus system.

What’s most missing is shelter, Plasencia said. He said the governor’s office said the state could not set up any temporary emergent shelters because that was a local responsibility.

“The sad part of this is the lack of support and even the lack of acknowledgment by our local government,” he said. “Where has Teresa Jacobs been, or [Orlando Mayor] Buddy Dyer throughout this whole process?”

Other groups are stepping in. A coalition of churches is finding some housing. Others are providing job leads, notably Eddy Dominguez‘s human resources company Resource Employment Solutions, and the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association.

Plasencia fears the needs will get more acute.

“Most of the people who come so far are living with family. They are people who have come here, typically have a little more means,” Plasencia said. “The next group of people who come may not be that way.”

Teresa Jacobs to Gainesville: Stay away from Richard Spencer’s appearance

In the aftermath of Orlando’s tragic massacre at the Pulse nightclub last year Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs was central in a community effort to socially unite in opposition to hatred and extremism, and on Thursday she urged the people of Gainesville to not give a visiting white supremacist’s platform a boost by going anywhere near him.

Jacobs and Gov. Rick Scott spoke out against the hatred and white supremacy Richard Spencer represents while the mayor and governor were surrounded by young children at the Roth Family Jewish Community Center in Maitland Thursday morning.

In discussing Spencer, Scott briefly outlined the preparations he and Alachua County and Gainesville officials were taking to prepare to prevent violence, and both Scott and Jacobs condemned in advance any violence that might spark from Spencer’s speech.

Jacobs began by declaring that Orange County does not tolerate white supremacy or white supremacists, and said she is confident most people in Gainesville feel the same way.

“I would just urge everyone to protest and who wants to be heard to do it by just staying at home and walking away from that opportunity to respond,” Jacobs said. “Sometimes the best response is no response.

“Don’t give this man the dignity of your time and your attention this evening. Keep our community safe and remember really what we’re all about as a community and don’t let one person distract us from that,” Jacobs added.


Bob Cortes heads for Puerto Rico on relief mission organized through speaker’s office

State Rep. Bob Cortes went to Puerto Rico Monday to oversee a disaster relief effort arranged by Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran and coordinated by him and other members of the Seminole County Legislative Caucus.

Cortes, a Republican from Altamonte Springs, is overseeing delivery of about four tons of supplies headed for the hard-hit eastern part of the island commonwealth.

Puerto Rico is his family home, where he still has numerous family members struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s devastation. On Monday Cortes expressed hope to get supplies through to some of the 3.5 million people who lost so much, most still without power, many without running water, and all struggling.

He also expects to meet with officials there, possibly including Gov. Ricardo Rossello, to talk about future cooperative efforts between Florida and Puerto Rico.

“We want to make sure what we do here will set the tone for the future as we try to help,” Cortes said by phone from San Juan.

This effort, he said, was arranged through conversations between Corcoran and Puerto Rico House Speaker Carlos Johnny Méndez.

Seminole County’s Legislative Caucus of Cortes, state Sen. Dave Simmons, and state Reps. Scott Plakon, and Jason Brodeur worked with the Orlando Sanford International Airport, Allegiant Airlines and the Course of Action Foundation to make it happen.

“I’m so proud to be part of this effort to do our part in helping our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico who continue to suffer in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria,” Cortes stated in a news release issued by his office. “Everyone has worked tirelessly to coordinate this project.”

Darren Soto’s slow campaign fundraising still unchallenged

Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando raised just $83,000 during the last quarter for his re-election campaign in Florida’s 9th Congressional District, yet neither of his Republican challengers in Florida’s 9th Congressional District raised much of anything.

The new contributions through Sept. 30, minus $28,000 in campaign expenses, left Soto with $222,318 in the bank on Oct. 1, according to the latest campaign finance reports posted on the Federal Election Commission website.

To date, Soto had raised $282,727 for his campaign, most of that coming from political action committee donations. Those committee donations include $10,000 from the No Labels Problem Solvers PAC, created by a bipartisan group of Congress members.

Two Republican challengers, Wayne Liebnitzky and Sean Alan Buchan, both reported raising less than $1,000 during the quarter covering July, August and September. Buchan finished the quarter with no money, while Liebnitzky reported having $362 in the bank.

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