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Democrats batter Rick Scott over nursing home tragedy

Democratic candidates for governor are hitting Gov. Rick Scott and others hard in the wake of eight deaths in a South Florida nursing home that lost its air conditioning as Hurricane Irma hit the state.

But Scott’s office defended the governor’s actions, saying the facility never reported “that conditions had become dangerous.”

A criminal investigation by Broward County law enforcement in underway into the deaths at Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, including whether they were heat-related or from carbon monoxide poisoning from generators.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum called for an independent investigation, slamming Scott for giving out “a special priority phone line – then fail(ing) to act when they received distress calls.”

“I am calling for a full independent investigation into this matter,” Gillum said in a statement. “The investigators must have full access to all public records and transcripts of communications, meetings, and conference calls between the Governor, his Office, and healthcare facilities in preparing for Hurricane Irma.

“In Tallahassee, we learned after Hurricane Hermine that communication is vital between first responders, government, and our most vulnerable populations,” Gillum added. “This year we took the proper steps of assigning utility workers as direct points of contact with nursing homes and other urgent care facilities, and we prioritized their power restoration during Irma.”

Former Tallahassee Congresswoman Gwen Graham also issued a statement that she had filed a public records request “for all call logs, text messages, and voicemails to a private emergency phone number Rick Scott distributed to healthcare providers.”

Scott, a Naples Republican, was formerly head of a for-profit hospital chain.

“There must be an immediate, independent investigation into reports Gov. Scott distributed a private line to healthcare providers and then ignored pleas for help,” Graham said. “It is 100 percent the governor’s responsibility to do everything in his power protect every Floridian.”

But Scott spokesman John Tupps said in an email “every call made to the Governor from facility management was referred to the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Florida Department of Health and quickly returned.”

“At no time did the facility report that conditions had become dangerous or that the health and safety of their patients was at risk,” he said. “In fact, on Monday, Department of Health staff advised this facility to call 911 if they had any reason to believe that their patients were not safe.”

The office also provided background material that the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills “reported into the state’s facility status monitoring database 17 times since Thursday, Sept. 7. Throughout the course of these reports, the facility never requested any assistance or reported the need for evacuations.”

Until 1:30 p.m. this Tuesday, “the facility reported that they had full power, that heating, cooling systems and generator systems were operational and they had adequate fuel.”

By 5 p.m. that same day, “the facility reported that they had partial power, but that their heating and cooling systems and generator were operational. They did not request anything beyond help with FPL,” referring to Florida Power & Light.

Then on 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, “the facility (again) reported that they had partial power, the generator was operational and they had adequate fuel supply. At that time, they reported their heating and cooling systems were not operational.”

A joint statement from the Department of Health and Agency for Health Care Administration Friday evening added that it is “100 percent the responsibility of health care professionals to preserve life by acting in the best interest of the health and well-being of their patients.”

“Let’s be clear—this facility is located across the street from one of Florida’s largest hospitals, which never lost power and had fully operating facilities,” the statement said. “The tragic and senseless loss at Hollywood Hills Rehabilitation Center is the subject of a criminal homicide investigation by law enforcement.”

In an interview with FloridaPolitics.com earlier Friday, Winter Park businessman Chris King lashed out over what he described as longtime state neglect of senior housing concerns.

“The Broward tragedy I think is another example exposing what I hope I’m getting across throughout the state, which is for a very long time there’s been very little leadership on housing and on aging issues,” King said.

“My concern is less on what happened in Broward and more the decision making that created that environment, and why we’re still not out of the woods in the larger issues of housing and aging, and why the state is in an absolute crisis,” he added.

Scott is term-limited as governor next year but is said to be considering a run for U.S. Senate against incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

Bill Nelson wants cable, internet providers to give Floridians a post-Irma break

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson asked the nation’s largest cable, telephone and internet providers Thursday to give Hurricane Irma victims rebates for service interruptions.

He also requested the companies provide a 60-day moratorium on late fees, interest accrual and penalties to give people time to recover from the worst storm in the state’s history.

“As we begin the recovery process, it’s important that consumers not be saddled with late fees and other necessary costs – particularly those without the means to deal with those costs,” Nelson said in the letter.

The letters were sent to the CEOs of AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter Communications, Comcast, Cox Enterprises, Frontier Communications, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon.

In Florida, 18 percent of cell sites were down, according to Federal Communications Commission data released Wednesday. But more than 85 percent of cell towers in a six-county area of Central Florida regained power by midday Wednesday.

Nelson is trying to prevent the companies from billing during the lapse in service.

Sprint, Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile have agreed to waive text, call and data overage fees for its services through Friday. While AT&T extended their waiver through Sunday. T-Mobile is offering free calls and texts to all Central Florida area codes.

VA hospitals to take in nursing home residents, Bill Nelson says

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will make beds in VA facilities available to residents of Florida nursing homes that have no power, Sen. Bill Nelson said Thursday.

Nelson said he saw that the VA had done so with refugees from the U.S. Virgin Islands, accepting them into the VA hospital at Puerto Rico, and asked them Wednesday, before news of the horrific six-death incident in Hollywood, if the same could be done in Florida.

“I called the VA secretary [David Shulkin] yesterday,” Nelson said. “He said, ‘Absolutely!’ He said, ‘You have my authority to make that happen.'”

Nelson said he’s now working with an assistant secretary to get it done.

Nelson said he is not certain how many beds might be available in Florida’s VA facilities.

The VA issued a release Thursday saying that Shulkin has been working with both Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Nelson and their staffs on this issue beginning yesterday evening.

“We thank Governor Scott and Senator Nelson for involving VA and are grateful we can help our fellow citizens where we can in this time of need,” Shulkin stated in the release. “All Americans are pulling together to help one another, and we must make a special effort for those most vulnerable to the conditions brought on by the storm.”

The VA has the ability to make its facilities available to non-veterans as part of its fourth mission, to support national, state and local emergency management, public health, safety and homeland security efforts and also through a mission agreement with FEMA under a Stafford Act Declaration.

Shulkin agreed to make more beds available to non-veteran nursing home residents as needed and free, while ensuring we continue our primary mission of providing healthcare to Veterans, the release stated.

The VA is also working closely with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the overall response to Irma, in addition to this specific issue.

FEMA declares individual disaster relief for Polk, Pasco

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has now amended their initial Federal Disaster Declaration to include Pasco County and Polk County for individual assistance.

The declaration now will allow individuals in both counties affected by Hurricane Irma to receive recovery support and disaster assistance.

“This is so important because there are many people suffering throughout my district,” said Congressman Gus Bilirakis of Tarpon Springs. “This financial support will go a long way in helping residents as they recover from Hurricane Irma.”

Added Polk County-area Congressman Dennis Ross: “The people of Polk County desperately need this relief. Folks have lost everything and have suffered so much.”

Residents of those counties can now make claims for individual assistance through FEMA by visiting www.disasterassistance.gov or by calling (800) 621-3362.

Ross represents Florida’s 15th Congressional District, which includes parts of Hillsborough and Lake Counties, in addition to Polk. Bilirakis represents Florida’s 12th District, which encompasses parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties, in addition to Pasco.

Both GOP congressmen indicated in respective press releases that it was only thorough their lobbying that residents in their districts can now get federal assistance from the hurricane.

“Since before Hurricane Irma made landfall, I have been fighting tirelessly to ensure those in my district and throughout the entire state of Florida are safe and have the resources and information needed to protect themselves,” Ross said. “I have spoken to FEMA every day, multiple times a day, for nearly a week now to assess the status of and fight for relief for my district and the counties I represent.”

Ross is also calling on the IRS to postpone certain deadlines for taxpayers who reside or have a business in the declared disaster area, something that Florida’s U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson also called for.

“I ask that you use all means within your authority to provide appropriate administrative relief to taxpayers affected by the storm—including a delay in quarterly estimated payments, a delay in tax filing deadlines, and a moratorium on private debt collection proceedings,” Nelson, a Democrat, said Tuesday.

After Irma, state politicians descend on Jacksonville

Hurricane Irma’s impact stopped being felt in Jacksonville Monday afternoon, and it was soon thereafter that Gov. Rick Scott was in town.

Scott, who added Duval County to his ask for a major disaster declaration post-Irma on Monday evening, visited a local hurricane shelter with New York Mets’ minor league prospect Tim Tebow, a legend in these parts for his tenure as Florida Gators’ quarterback a decade ago.

Duval will join St. Johns, Flagler, Clay, and Putnam as Counties benefiting from federal help, which includes reimbursement for debris removal and individual assistance for those whose properties were impacted by the storm.

Tuesday saw Scott surveying damage from the sky, with Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry. The two reprised a role last seen in the wake of Hurricane Matthew 11 months prior, with Scott coming to town to assess damage after that storm.

After Gov. Scott’s visit, Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio made trips to the Duval Emergency Operations Center early in the afternoon.

Each arrived separately, and each had their own takes on the storm and the path forward afterward.

Nelson noted that, in addition to the 365 water rescues that were made in Duval County when the storm surge came in, there were 120 rescues in Clay and St. Johns.

Nelson described the hurricane as a “very unusual one, that covered the entire state,” one with “real surprises” for everyone.

Water was the big surprise for Jacksonville, of course, as the storm surge flooded the city for hours on end Monday.

“Water … surprised places like North Florida,” Nelson said.

The storm drew strength from turbocharged waters on each side of the peninsula, of course. Nelson noted that “measurements show that sea level has risen eight inches over the last40 years” off the Miami Beach coast, a rise that was accompanied by the heating of the ocean itself.

“That is expected to increase,” Nelson said.

Miami Beach, said Nelson. has had to spend “tens of millions of dollars on expensive pumps” to deal with a mean high tide — and floods are still part of life down there.

“If that’s happening when there’s not a storm, what happens when there is a storm? We’d better get ready for it, because it’s happening before our very eyes.”

Nelson also addressed post-Andrew building codes, noting that the Florida Legislature passed a law to relax those codes.

He’s not a fan of that move.

“Let’s keep these strong building codes,” Nelson said, noting that there was a vast difference in how new construction and older buildings fared during Irma on Florida’s Southwest coast when he toured it earlier this week.

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Rubio actually agreed with Nelson regarding the building codes.

“People may not like it, but you know when you’re in a house rated post-Andrew, you have a lot more security about what that means for you and your family, and I hope we don’t walk away from that,” Rubio said.

And he had a lot more to say besides.

Regarding the individual assistance authorized by President Donald Trump for individuals impacted by the storm, Rubio noted that time was of the essence regarding disbursement.

“How many people will not be able to go home for a long time … if you lost your home, you can’t go home tonight, we’ve got to get you that money quickly,” Rubio said, noting that local governments — such as Jacksonville, still owed $26M from the federal government for the last storm — are not able to shoulder that burden.

“There are communities waiting three or four years,” Rubio said in reference to Jacksonville’s cash crunch, citing a “backlog” that needs improvement.

“Small businesses” likewise need SBA help.

A “week or two without revenue,” Rubio said, may be the end for them.

Rubio also addressed Nelson’s contention that sea level rise contributed to this storm.

“Irrespective of the broader debate about its causes, you can measure sea level. And when you start to see flooding at high tide at many communities across Florida, when you start to see military installations critical to our economy and our state threatened by it, there are some things you need to do, and some things you can do.”

“There are some things you can do to mitigate,” Rubio said, though he called it a “whole other debate” when this reporter suggested that strategies are elusive to cool the water down that energizes these storms in the first place.

Flooding at high tide, Rubio said, is an “accelerating process.”

We asked Rubio if the Trump Administration was particularly equipped to handle the challenges created by what some call global warming.

“Again, we’re talking about mitigation. And when it comes to mitigation, it’s an infrastructure need,” Rubio said, a “critical” one.

Bill Nelson asks Dept. of Energy to address Florida’s gas shortage

Just because Hurricane Irma has left the state doesn’t mean that everything is back to normal in the Sunshine State.

Take gasoline, for instance. It’s still hard for many Floridians to gas up, which is a major problem with so many people  wanting to return to their homes.

Referring to how the U.S. government created a separate gasoline supply reserve for the Northeast after Hurricane Sandy ravaged New York and New Jersey, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson is calling on the Department of Energy to create a similar reserve supply for Florida in the wake of the storm.

“A Florida Gasoline Supply Reserve would ensure that residents and first responders have access to an emergency supply of fuel, and help prevent the shortages that may have kept some from evacuating and may hinder recover efforts going forward,” Nelson writes in a letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

After Hurricane Sandy hit and caused widespread issues related to the availability of gasoline, the Energy Department responded by establishing the U.S. Northeast Gasoline Supply Reserve (NGSR), the first federal regional refined petroleum product reserve containing gasoline.

The gasoline reserve was established as part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). It consists of 1 million barrels of gasoline blendstock and is stored in commercial storage terminals in Maine, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Coincidentally, the Trump administration acknowledged in their budget proposal for 2018 that they would like to sell off that entire reserve. A sale would offset $69 million of discretionary spending, with any additional proceeds going to the U.S. Treasury’s general fund for deficit reduction, the proposal says.

Meanwhile, the Port of Tampa has announced that three  petroleum vessels were expected to bring fuel into Port Tampa Bay when it reopened this afternoon. Spokesperson Samara Sodos says that dozens of tanker trucks were loaded with gas (with fuel stored at Port Tampa Bay), and continue to be filled right now.

“They are delivering fuel to the Tampa Bay area and beyond,” she said in a statement.

Listed below is Nelson’s text to Perry.

Dear Secretary Perry:

I write today regarding the gasoline shortages that occurred in Florida prior to landfall of Hurricane Irma, and are likely to persist in the days and weeks that follow.

I appreciate efforts taken to date by the Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to try to expedite the flow of gasoline shipments into Florida in the wake of the storm.  At least some of these efforts, however, appear to have been hampered by the apparent lack of adequate gasoline reserves in Florida prior to the storm.

Unfortunately, this was also the case in the Northeast U.S. after Superstorm Sandy – where some communities waited weeks for gasoline shipments after the storm.  These shortages hampered relief and recovery efforts in many communities.  In response, the Department created a Northeast Gasoline Supply Reserve (NGSR) in 2014 to ensure an emergency gasoline supply for future natural or man-made disasters in that region.

In the wake of Hurricane Irma, I urge you to consider using your authority to create a similar gasoline supply reserve for the State of Florida.  A Florida Gasoline Supply Reserve would ensure that residents and first responders have access to an emergency supply of fuel, and help prevent the shortages that may have kept some from evacuating and may hinder recover efforts going forward.

Thank you in advance for your attention to this critical issue.  I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Bill Nelson in Tampa: ‘This potentially could be the big one’

Earlier this summer, The Washington Post reported that the Tampa Bay area was due for a major hurricane and  that if a big one occured, “the damage would likely surpass Katrina.”

“This potentially could be the big one,” U.S. Senator Bill Nelson agreed when asked about his concerns about Hurricane Irma while visiting with reporters inside the Hillsborough County Emergency Operations Center Saturday morning.

The Democrat said that the storm should lessen in its intensity as it moves north because the east side of it would be over land which doesn’t have water for its fuel – but he said, that all depends on the eye of the storm.

“It’s the eastern wall of the eye that has the strongest winds, if that is going right up the west side of the peninsula of Florida, that means those winds are going north and northwest and that will drive the water into the bays and the big one, as indicated by that article, is exactly that scenario driving that water up into Tampa Bay,” he said.

On Friday, the House of Representatives approved a $15.25 billion disaster relief bill that also includes a three-month extension of both federal government funding and borrowing authority, a move that ends the threat of a partial government shutdown at the end of the month. Nelson and Marco Rubio were able to  get some of that funding available to handle what is expected to a major cleanup in Florida after Irma hits.

“We got the flexable language so that they can use some of those resources,” Nelson said. “But this is only going to last a few weeks. We’re going to have do an additional emergency appropriation, probably in the middle of October.”

Nelson also expressed concerns about how stretched the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is after dealing with Hurricane Harvey over the past few weeks.  “They’ve had to actually pull people from Texas here into Florida because of what’s about to happen here.”

Joe Henderson: Another tone deaf move by Donald Trump

Florida’s members of the United States Senate don’t agree on much, but with a Category 5 hurricane bearing down on Miami and the east coast, Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio are standing shoulder-to-shoulder in advocating for their state.

Well done.

Yes, we expect leaders to put aside their differences and come together in times like this. But the trend of bipartisan agreement between those two actually started a few days ago, although current events shoved the news to the back pages.

They agree that President Trump offered up a lousy nominee to head NASA.

The choice of climate-denier U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma to lead the space agency was just the latest example of the president’s tone-deaf timing, given the devastation in Texas from Hurricane Harvey and the way Hurricane Irma just flattened Caribbean islands on its way to Florida.

The nomination came last week in what has become known as the “Friday news dump” – that time when leaders try to slip controversial items into a period where they don’t think people will be paying attention.

Nelson and Rubio were paying attention.

Bridenstine has shown a keen interest in the space program and has indicated he would fast-track the mission to send astronauts to Mars.

That is all good.

But weather research also is a key part of NASA’s mission, and Bridenstine has left no doubt where he stands on the issue that humans are contributing to climate change.

In a 2013 speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, he said, “And we also know that (President Obama) spends 30 times as much money on global warming research as he does on weather forecasting and warning. For this gross misallocation, the people of Oklahoma are ready to accept the president’s apology, and I intend to submit legislation to fix this.”

Politifact rated Bridenstine’s assertion as mostly false.

“The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician,” Nelson told Politico in a statement.

Rubio told Politico he agreed with Nelson, and added that because the Senate must approve the nominee, the “baggage” Bridenstine carries means his confirmation is no sure thing.

“I just think it could be devastating for the space program. Obviously, being from Florida, I’m very sensitive to anything that slows up NASA and its mission,” Rubio said.

What’s happening in this hurricane season is exactly what climate experts have been warning about for years.

They say because of human actions, storms would be stronger than anything we’ve seen and they would be more frequent. Coastal areas would be devastated and the economic damage would be in the trillions of dollars.

Well, it’s happening. Trump’s response is to turn a key agency involved in climate research over to someone who says it’s all fake news.

Bill Nelson urges FEMA to help with Florida gas shortage

Alarmed by reports of Hurricane Irma evacuees finding empty gas stations throughout South Florida, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is urging FEMA to do something about it.

In a letter late Wednesday to William B. Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Nelson called on the agency to use “all available resources and authorities” to help with the evacuation, including pre-positioning del supplies near and along evacuation routes.

“As a growing number of Floridians are being ordered to evacuate, we need to ensure that these evacuees have access to the gasoline they need to escape this approaching storm,” Nelson wrote. “I strongly urge FEMA to use all available resources and authorities to assist those evacuating this potentially catastrophic storm, including pre-positioning fuel supplies near and along evacuation routes so those running low on fuel can obtain an emergency supply to get them out of harm’s way.”

Nelson’s letter comes amid numerous reports of of gas rations from Miami to West Palm Beach running out of fuel. He noted that in 2005, thousands of people got stuck on the side of the road as they tried to leave Houston during Hurricane Rita, and wrote, “We cannot allow this to happen again.”

Nelson also said he has asked the Federal Trade Commission to monitor reports of fuel price gouging to make sure Floridians are not being taken advantage of, and asked that FEMA also do what it can to assist Floridians at this vulnerable time.

Bill Nelson, Marco Rubio want more FEMA cash in aid bill

U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio sent a joint letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer Wednesday asking for money for Florida to be added to the Hurricane Harvey aid package passed by the U.S. House earlier in the day.

“Hurricane Irma is now one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean and is currently on track to make landfall in South Florida as early as Sunday,” they wrote. “This massive category-5 storm has the potential to cause catastrophic destruction throughout the state, and we are deeply concerned that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will not have the resources it needs to respond if Congress doesn’t act soon.”

The senators noted that FEMA is set to run out of money by Friday, two days before Irma is expected to hit the state.

“As Floridians are preparing for one of the worst storms on record, they need to know that the federal government is both ready and willing to direct the necessary resources needed to help them in the recovery process. As such, we strongly urge you to include additional funding in the Hurricane Harvey aid package to account for the additional costs FEMA will likely incur responding to Hurricane Irma,” they wrote.

The package that passed the House includes $7.9 billion in aid specifically for Hurricane Harvey recovery and could not be shifted to Florida responders without leaving the victims of that storm out to dry.

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