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Rick Scott, Adam Putnam, Richard Corcoran tour storm-ravaged St. Johns County

Team of rivals?

Florida Gov. Rick Scott toured storm damage, including wrecked houses and eroded beaches, along the St. Johns County coastline Thursday, and with him were two likely candidates to replace him as the 2018 GOP nominee.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam were both along for the ride.

As three of the most powerful Republicans in the state, they presented a united front in letting St. Johns County know that the state recognized that the county needed help to rebuild after its second devastating storm in less than a year.

“We are all going to work together,” Scott said, “to bring our beaches back.”

Corcoran likewise spoke the language of unity: “Our message to the First Coast is we’re going to go around, see what needs to be done in the state, and we’re with you. We’re going to recover and rebuild, and we’ll be better off and safer the next time.”

Putnam, likewise, asserted that “events like this often bring out the best in Floridians … Florida’s strong, Florida’s resilient … the First Coast has been here for 500 years; it will be here for 500 more.”

However, with Corcoran and Putnam both vying to replace Scott in Tallahassee, it was perhaps inevitable that questions about 2018 — both the Legislative Session and the campaign — would be asked.

One such question went to Scott and Putnam both, about Speaker Corcoran’s assertion that over $600M in local “pork” projects should be reduced in favor of staunching the state’s hurricane readiness.

Scott said that he thinks it’s “very important” to make sure that taxpayer money is “spent the most important way.”

“I always welcome a review afterward,” Scott said. “I welcome what the Speaker is proposing and what the Legislature will be doing.”

Putnam likewise offered what could be framed as conceptual support.

“This storm resets the state’s priorities,” Putnam said. “From local government to state government and throughout, there’s no question that everybody is reorienting themselves in the aftermath of this storm.”

We then asked the two gubernatorial candidates if hurricanes would be a talking point in what will certainly be an expensive, heavily messaged campaign.

“I think what we’re doing today,” Corcoran said, “is beginning that process of what can we do to make our state safer … that’s the focus; all that other stuff will take care of itself.”

Corcoran added that every county in the state was impacted, and that “hurricane preparedness” will be “first and foremost” in the next Legislative Session, the “driving force over the next four months.”

Putnam noted that “the people who lost their roof, the people who are cleaning up this mess — they aren’t focused on 2018, they’re focused on today. And we are too.”

We gave the Governor an opportunity to endorse Putnam or Corcoran in front of both men and TV cameras from the Jacksonville market.

He chuckled, then pivoted to message about Florida being a tourism state.

Clearly, storm recovery will happen — it always does. But what was clear: both Putnam and Corcoran are keenly aware that the policy discussions of 2017 will have a great bearing on the politics that will follow next year.

Up and Adam: Putnam serves breakfast to Jacksonville kids

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam was at Beauclerc Elementary in Jacksonville Thursday morning, serving breakfast to students.

The appearance at the Southside school underscored his office’s announcement this week that students in 48 Florida counties under FEMA’s major disaster declaration could eat free at school until October 20.

Putnam noted that this declaration allows 2.5M students at 3,000 schools in the counties to eat.

Beauclerc Elementary has been around for a few decades, but has changed along with the West Baymeadows neighborhood.

Beauclerc is now a dual-language school, the Principal told us, with a full third of the population receiving Spanish and English instruction.

During his visit, Putnam noted with delight that Chartwells — the food vendor — has increased its use of Florida grown produce 75 percent in the last two years.

However, that comes with caveats; as he served fruit cups to some of Beauclerc’s youngest students Thursday morning, the Ag Commissioner noted that much of this year’s citrus crop is “on the ground” — a consequence of Hurricane Irma.

Putnam asserted that serving breakfast was aligned with some larger parts of his mission as Agriculture Commissioner, noting that a healthy breakfast corresponds with “kids missing fewer days of school,” as well as being focused in the classroom.

This, along with other factors, has helped Beauclerc boost its test scores 15 points in the last year — no small feat.

The Jacksonville area has been a focus of political visits and efforts since Hurricane Irma’s epic storm surge, with both Florida Senators frequent fixtures in Jacksonville, and even a visit on Wednesday from U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

Putnam, who faces a competitive primary for the Republican nomination for Florida Governor in 2018, is uniquely positioned to capitalize on storm relief to garner earned media; opponents such as Sen. Jack Latvala and House Speaker Richard Corcoran will have no such analogous recourse.

We asked Putnam if the event could be constituted as earned media; he rejected the proposition.

“I’m just doing my job,” Putnam said.

If Putnam does not become Governor next year, he suggested that elementary school food service may be an option for a future gig.

“Always need a Plan B in this business,” Putnam quipped, as he sold kids on the singular wonders of Florida produce.

This is Putnam’s first school cafeteria visit in the state, but it won’t be the last, he said.

Expect him to incorporate such visits in other major media markets in the months ahead.

Citrus industry looks for aid after Irma

A long wait may be ahead for broad federal relief for Florida’s beleaguered citrus industry, “decimated” last week by a lethal hurricane that crossed the peninsula at the start of the growing season, state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Wednesday.

Putnam, a Bartow Republican running for governor, advised Florida Citrus Commission members that the agriculture industry – the state’s second-largest industry after tourism – could be at the mercy of Congress to land broader federal assistance for crops ravaged by Hurricane Irma.

“Comparable disaster assistance programs, to what we’ve seen in the past, will now require an act of Congress,” Putnam, a former member of the U.S. House, said. “And as a recovering congressman, I can assure you that nothing moves as fast as we’d like in Washington.”

Putnam, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Thomas Rooney took an aerial tour Monday of a number of groves in Southwest Florida.

Perdue, a former Georgia governor, tweeted Monday, “Staggering crop loss from #Irma will test resilience of growers.”

Insurance is expected to help many citrus growers cover crop losses, and federal rural-development loan programs are available. Perdue said in a separate tweet that he will ask Congress for additional aid.

However, Putnam said Perdue’s office doesn’t have the flexibility it once had.

When Florida was hit by a series of hurricanes in 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created a $500 million Florida Hurricane Disaster Assistance program. The money covered storm damages and income losses for growers.

“Timing will be key,” Putnam said. “We’re going to have to devise a new strategy that will allow growers to get the help they need, as quickly as possible, to be able to rebuild. And we need total industry unity to accomplish this, throughout the citrus industry and our other commodities, to really get done what we need to get done.”

Citrus Commission Chairman G. Ellis Hunt, president of citrus groves and packing houses in Lake Wales, said “jobs are in limbo” for an industry that employees about 45,000 people and that the need for federal assistance is “very significant.”

“We had people from the packing house calling in (Tuesday) wanting to know when we are going to start. We don’t have a date and can’t tell them,” Hunt said. “There’s a lot of questions out there behind each of these growers, but the employees are really questioning what will happen to their lives.”

While meeting with reporters and farmers in Lake Wales last week, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson – while jointly touring areas impacted by the storm with Rubio – said Congress may not consider disaster relief money for Florida until it is forced to act on the federal budget in December.

A similar vote providing $15.3 billion to victims of Hurricane Harvey was approved this month over the objections of a number of conservative Republicans as the vote also raised the federal debt ceiling and extended government funding into December.

A clearer outlook on the storm’s impact is expected when the first forecast for the citrus growing season is made Oct. 12 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Florida’s citrus industry, which has faced years of reduced acreage and a deadly citrus greening disease, was already at a five decades-low yield when the most-recent growing season ended in July.

A decade ago, Florida accounted for almost three-fourths of all U.S. orange production. California was second at 25.7 percent. Florida now accounts for 58 percent of U.S. orange production. California remains second, but at 40.65 percent of the federal total.

Estimates of Hurricane Irma’s impacts range from 40 percent to 100 percent losses for growers, though an overall figure is not available.

Nevertheless, Putnam said the industry will survive as it has past freezes, storms and other disasters.

“This is a resilient industry,” Putnam said “We’ve been through this. We’ll get through this.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Jack Latvala swears off electric cash, urges utilities to stop political donations

State Sen. Jack Latvala called Tuesday for electric utilities in Florida to stop donating to political campaigns and instead spend the money on improving their power grid infrastructure.

Latvala is a Republican gubernatorial candidate from Clearwater, has received electric company money in his political committee, Florida Leadership Committee, but not nearly as much as his Republican rival Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam has in his Florida Grown political committee.

While acknowledging that he’s accepted money from utilities in the past, Latvala says he will not in the future.

“Hurricane Irma showed us just how vulnerable we are with 6.5 million Floridians losing power after the storm,” Latvala stated in a news release issued by his gubernatorial campaign.

“In my home county of Pinellas, which was by no means the hardest hit area in the state, I heard from residents this week that were still without power. It’s time the utilities stop spending money on political candidates and instead protect the residents of this state.”

The release said state records shows in the 2018 election cycle the state’s largest utilities have already donated more than $3.6 million to candidates from both parties.

That includes $25,000 Duke Energy gave to Latvala’s Florida Leadership Committee in July. It also includes $250,000 Florida Power & Light donated to Putnam’s Florida Grown committee in January. Both committees also have received power company checks in previous years.

None of the three major Democratic candidates, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Winter Park Developer Chris King, and former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, have received any power utility money this year.

Latvala acknowledged the money spent on campaigns “may not solve the entire problem.” After all, the utilities contend they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to harden their electrical systems.

“But it will be a good start,” Latvala stated. “And I’m sure the thousands of Floridians who are still struggling to live without electricity would be more than happy to hear our state’s utilities will stop political donations and instead focus on their welfare and needs.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is a major calamity,” said Putnam.

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

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Free meals for Irma kids

Students who go to school in counties that were hit hard by Hurricane Irma will be getting meals on the federal government’s tab.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam on Monday announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture accepted his request to allow students in 48 counties subject to a FEMA Major Disaster Declaration to receive free school meals through the National School Lunch Program.

These changes, in effect Sept. 18-Oct. 20, will potentially affect over 3,000 schools and 2.5 million children, a press release said: “The department is requesting additional flexibilities as counties are being declared major disaster areas and as requests are submitted by counties. As such, additional counties could be added to the waiver in the coming days.”

The waiver includes these counties:

Charlotte, Collier, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Pinellas, Broward, Palm Beach, Glades, Hendry, Sarasota, Clay, Duval, Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns, Brevard, Citrus, DeSoto, Hardee, Hernando, Highlands, Indian River, Lake, Marion, Martin, Okeechobee, Orange, Osceola, Pasco, Polk, St. Lucie, Seminole, Sumter, Volusia, Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Columbia, Dixie, Gilchrist, Lafayette, Levy, Nassau, Suwannee and Union.

Parents or guardians can find additional information here or contact the department at 1-800-504-6609 or by emailing

Gwen Graham: Hurricane Irma showed Florida isn’t as prepared as it should be

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham believes Florida should have been better prepared to handle the impact of Hurricane Irma.

“The state of Florida was not ready for this storm,” Graham declared Saturday night. The 54-year-old attorney and former Tallahassee-area congresswoman made the comments while delivering the keynote address before a record crowd at the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee’s annual Kennedy-King Dinner in downtown Tampa.

Graham said the destructive storm – which hit the Florida Keys as a Category 4 hurricane last Sunday morning before moving its way through the state, proves that state lawmakers need to address climate change and comprehensive hurricane preparedness.

Considered the establishment favorite, Graham began her 19-minute speech by talking about the selfless acts performed by Floridians throughout the state during what was an excruciatingly stressful time.

Graham’s Hurricane Irma experience involved setting up and supervising a shelter at Richards High School in Tallahassee. She said that all the preparations had been done correctly at that shelter, “but when the power went out across the state of Florida, it became clear that we were not as ready as we needed to be.”

Governor Rick Scott has received mostly laudatory reviews, even from Democrats, for his handling of the storm. But Graham didn’t go there. She insisted that her criticisms weren’t political , but practical, saying that the state has to be better prepared for when the next major hurricane comes Florida’s way.

“They have been decades in the making,” she said about the lack of proper preparation. “Hurricanes have grown stronger, but the state has not done nearly enough to prepare us for the changes we’re witnessing.”

Graham blasted Scott for prohibiting state agencies for even using the words “climate change,” and said she would act in a completely different and proactive way in trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Florida. Those measures would include joining states like California and New York in what is being called the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of U.S. states committed to upholding the Paris Climate Agreement and taking aggressive action on climate change. She also said she would ban oil drilling off Florida beaches and ban fracking throughout the state.

Referring to how the roads running to North Florida were clogged for days as people evacuated before Irma’s arrival, Graham criticized Scott for not reversing southbound traffic on the major interstates and state roads. But she said the state wasn’t prepared to do that because that would have cut off gas and emergency crews from reaching South Florida.

“Supplying every community is vital, which is why the state must develop a plan before the storm, capable of reversing highway lanes and also allowing for providing crucial needs for those south,” she said. “The day will come when we must reverse traffic to once again evacuate major cities, and the state must have a plan and a willingness to do that.”

Graham then spoke about the biggest tragedy connected to the storm – the news that eight elderly patients died at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills after the nursing home lost power. Democrats have seized on the incident, with U.S. Senator Bill Nelson calling it “an emerging scandal of gargantuan proportions.” Graham has called for an investigation and made a public information request for Scott’s cellphone records shortly after a CBS affiliate in Miami reported Friday that the executives at that nursing home called Scott’s cell phone asking for help getting their power back on.

Graham cited legislation proposed in 2004 that would have considered safety measures to protect seniors in nursing homes — legislation that she said was stopped by industry lobbyists who said it was “too expensive.”

“Eight Florida seniors died because our system failed them,” she said. “They died, in part, because elected leaders failed to see the real cost, the human cost.”

Graham then threw a jab at House Speaker Richard Corcoran, saying that an hour after the media first broke the news about the deaths in Hollywood, Corcoran was tweeting about tax rates. “It’s a sickening example of how the politicians in Tallahassee have the wrong priorities for the wrong people,” she said.

Corcoran is contemplating a run governor; Adam Putnam and Jack Latvala are the only two major Republicans to have entered the race to date.

The other two Democrats in the race are Orlando-area businessman Chris King and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who showed up to the VIP party before the dinner began and earlier spoke to more than 100 people at a Tampa craft brewing pub.

Still lurking in the shadows are two Democrats who bring tremendous financial resources to the race if they opt to enter it – Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and attorney/entrepreneur John Morgan.

DEC officials said 450 tickets were sold to the event, the most in the history of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party.

Local Democrats Karen Clay, Betty Castor and Tom Scarritt were all given awards earlier in the evening.

Some gubernatorial candidates return to the campaign trail; some don’t

Agricultural Commissioner and GOP gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam was scheduled to appear this coming Monday night at a meet and greet event at Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, but now he won’t.

The Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee announced Friday that the event has been canceled until further notice. Although no reason was given, it’s highly likely that as a Cabinet member, Putnam needs to focus on his day job while the state deals with the aftershocks of Hurricane Irma ripping through the state last weekend.

“As our Commissioner of Agriculture, Adam is involved in hurricane response efforts, ranging from search and rescue to food and water distribution,” read a press release issued out by Putnam on Friday.

The Ag Commissioner says the storm stripped 80 percent of fruit from trees in Southwest Florida, another blow to an industry already decimated by citrus greening.

“A 70 percent crop loss on a crop that is 70 percent smaller than it was 20 years ago presents a unique and existential threat to the industry and the processing capacity of the state,” Putnam said Thursday.

Two of the leading Democrats running for the top job in the state, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, will be in Tampa Saturday.

Actually, Gillum was in the Bay area on Friday, helping serve meals to those affected by the storm at the South Pinellas Food Bank at the Enoch Davis Center in St. Petersburg. On Saturday, he’ll appear at a meet and greet at 7eventh Sun Brewery in Seminole Heights between 2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. (6809 N. Nebraska Avenue in Tampa).

He’ll also make an appearance at the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee Kennedy-King dinner reception at the Hilton Tampa Downtown later in the afternoon. That’s where Graham is scheduled to give the keynote speech at the annual fundraiser for Hillsborough Democrats later in the evening.

In the lead-up to Irma’s arrival, Graham and her husband Steve helped set up and supervised a shelter for three days in Tallahassee. She also volunteered a full shift with Feeding Northeast Florida and at Jacksonville City Rescue.


Florida Keys still closed; ‘different kind of lifestyle for a while’

The lower Florida Keys were hammered in special ways by Hurricane Irma and remain closed to residents, visitors and even more volunteer cleanup workers as authorities try to get them livable, officials said Friday.

An estimated 65 percent of the housing was damaged to the point of being uninhabitable, according to authorities, but residents will not be allowed to cross the bridges to get back in to find out for themselves for the time being.

Water, sewer, electricity and housing stock are in short supply throughout the Keys, particularly in the lower Keys, official said during a meeting with Gov. Rick Scott, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and other local, state and federal disaster response authorities in Marathon. The main port is closed, and numerous boats and other vessels are adrift, clogging channels.

The Florida Department of Transportation has finished its inspections of all 26 bridges leading into the Keys and found them sound and safe. But that’s no longer the overriding issue.

Teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Florida Division of Emergency Management, various other state and federal agencies, even the U.S. Navy, are on the scene. And they’ve pretty much filled every available hotel and motel room, said Martin Senterfitt, Monroe County’s director of emergency management.

That means authorities even are turning away some volunteer relief workers, because there’s no place to put them.

“As much as we want help, as much as we need help, we have to  moderate that,” Senterfitt said.

And, he added, the Keys will remain closed until there is confidence residents and others will not come in to find no where to stay, nothing to drink, and no other services.

“Do they have the ability to boil water? Do they have the ability to flush a toilet? It’s that basic,” he said.

Many of the damaged homes appear to have only roof damage, but enough to keep them from being occupied. Yet FEMA and the Florida Division of Emergency Management have challenges in setting up temporary housing, because there is so limited available open land.

The main waterline survived, but most of the feeder lines into the islands were damaged, and they’re being inspected and repaired, but the process is time consuming, officials said.

The sewer lines appear to be fine, but most operate with pumps and lift stations, and with no electricity, most are not operating.

“The biggest need after we get water, power and fuel back, for the Keys, is housing,” Scott said.

Once the gates are opened and everyone is allowed back, a second wave of crisis is expected as each resident and business owner discovers his or her challenges, Senterfitt said

“It’s going to be a little bit different lifestyle for a long time,” he said.

Scott and other state and federal officials assured all attention possible is being focused on recovery in the Keys, which the governor said presents unique challenges.

“I think everybody’s goal is to get everybody back in the Keys the first day we can,” Scott said. “The day everybody can come back and enjoy the Keys again will be a good day for the state.

“The people evacuated out of the Keys, they want to get back.  But the most important thing is to keep everybody safe,” Scott said.


Billionaire blasts Donald Trump ‘dreamer’ decision

A prominent Republican fund-raiser turned critic of President Donald Trump said Thursday it would be a huge economic mistake not to let young undocumented immigrants, called “Dreamers,” remain in the United States.

“There is something wrong in separating families,” Miguel “Mike” Fernandez said, after delivering a speech to students and faculty at Florida A&M University. “That is a universal wrong. We are doing that in DACA.”

DACA is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows children brought to the country by their undocumented-immigrant parents to remain in the U.S. Former President Barack Obama put the program in place by executive order.

But the Trump administration this week rescinded the order, with an effective date of six months, giving Congress time to enact its own version of a DACA plan.

The Cuban-born Fernandez, who is a billionaire Miami businessman, supported Jeb Bush in last year’s presidential primary, but broke with his party over Trump’s anti-immigration stances and spent some $3 million in a campaign against Trump.

“If the president talks about Mexicans, murderers, criminals, rapists and so on, these (the Dreamers) are the very best. These are the opposite,” Fernandez said. “These are the students who are working hard. They are going to be tomorrow’s taxpayers.”

Fernandez, 65, who has created a number of health-care companies and later sold them, said Florida has more than 32,000 immigrants protected under DACA, and he estimates they will pay $6.7 billion in taxes over their lifetimes.

“It’s an economic issue,” he said. “Throw them out?”

Fernandez’s own story as a Cuban exile who came to the U.S. as a 12-year-old with his family was the focus of his speech to the FAMU students. Despite his enormous economic success, Fernandez repeatedly emphasized that he did not believe he had any great talents.

“I’m as average as they come,” he said.

He also talked about the many setbacks in his life, including business failures, three failed marriages, two heart attacks and cancer.

“You have to adjust,” Fernandez said. “There is not a linear path to success. Actually, I guarantee you that failure is a necessary step towards your success. If you haven’t failed, you haven’t pushed yourself hard enough.”

Fernandez distributed 700 copies of his autobiography, “Humbled by the Journey,” and took time after the speech to sign dozens of copies and talk to individual students.

Fernandez’s candor was also on display. Earlier in the day, he sent an email to the Tampa Bay Times calling state House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, who supports the elimination of DACA, a “bully” and an “intellectual midget.”

“They are just facts,” Fernandez said when asked about the comments. “That’s my opinion of the guy.”

Fernandez, who said he has given about $30 million to Republican causes over the last 15 years, also expressed “disappointment” in Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, although he had given $100,000 to help Putnam’s Republican gubernatorial campaign.

“I think that we lack in this country people who speak and stand on their backbone,” Fernandez said.

“He’s a guy who was fairly normal in his position until he is faced with an opponent who is more to the right. He feels he has to move to the right,” Fernandez said. “I move to where I am, and that’s who I respect.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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