Dennis Ross Archives - Florida Politics

Most of Florida congressional delegation protests lifting oil rig safety rules

A bipartisan group from Florida’s congressional delegation sent a letter to the Donald Trump administration opposing any rollback of safety regulations adopted after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

In a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the group of 20 lawmakers — both Democrats and Republicans — warned that “an oil spill can devastate a regional economy and inflict long-term environmental damage” and asked the secretary to “reject any proposals to roll back regulations that were specifically adopted to address systemic safety failures that led to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill.”

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement announced last week that some of the regulations adopted in response to the tragedy created “potentially unduly burdensome requirements” on oil and gas operators. The proposal to roll back safety rules was published in the Federal Register at the end of 2017.

Proposals to weaken safety requirements reportedly under consideration include:

Reversing a rule that called for more frequent testing of blowout preventers — the same device that failed in the Deepwater Horizon spill, which is intended to serve as a fail-safe against explosions in undersea oil and gas wells.

No longer requiring independent auditors to certify that safety and pollution prevention equipment works under extreme conditions. This would remove any federal requirement and instead allow [the] industry to adopt their own set of standards, the guideline industry utilized prior to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Scrapping the requirement that an investigation into equipment failure be completed within 120 days. This would enable oil companies to delay indefinitely with no required date of completion.

Removing the federal government’s authority to regulate maximum or minimum drilling pressures at new sites. This important provision maintains a safe pressure for drilling that prevents surges and potential blowouts similar to what occurred in the Deepwater Horizon spill.

The letter was led by Republican Vern Buchanan from Longboat Key and Democrat Alcee Hastings from Delray Beach. It was signed by GOP Reps. Gus Bilirakis, Carlos Curbelo, Bill Posey, Dennis Ross, Brian Mast Frances Rooney, John Rutherford and Illeana Ros-Lehtinen. Democrats who signed on included Kathy Castor, Charlie Crist, Val Demings, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel, Al Lawson, Stephanie Murphy, Darren Soto, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson.

The Florida members of Congress said, “It would be a huge mistake to weaken these safety regulations and risk not only lives, but catastrophic consequences to our environment. Florida’s coastal communities depend on a clean and healthy ocean and we should not jeopardize the state’s economy or environment by gambling on operations that lack adequate safeguards.”

You can read the entire letter below:

The Honorable Ryan Zinke

Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior

1849 C Street, NW

Washington, D.C. 20240

Dear Secretary Zinke,

We are writing to convey our strong opposition to any attempts by the U.S. Department of the Interior to weaken critical oil drilling safety rules adopted in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. As Floridians know all too well, an oil spill can devastate a regional economy and inflict long-term environmental damage.

That is why we are asking you to reject any proposals to roll back regulations that were specifically adopted to address systemic safety failures that led to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. Recently, a division of your agency, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) stated some of the regulations adopted since the spill created “potentially unduly burdensome requirements” on oil and gas operators.

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon spill spewed more than 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, claimed the lives of 11 workers, decimated the region’s iconic wildlife and severely damaged our fishing and tourism industries.

It would be a huge mistake to weaken these safety regulations and risk not only lives, but catastrophic consequences to our environment. Florida’s coastal communities depend on a clean and healthy ocean and we should not jeopardize the state’s economy or environment by gambling on operations that lack adequate safeguards.

As you are undoubtedly aware, BSEE adopted these regulations over the course of several years and after significant input and engagement with the public, federal policymakers, and industry stakeholders in order to enhance the safety of offshore oil and gas drilling.

Some of the most noteworthy and egregious proposals under consideration would:

Reverse a rule that called for more frequent testing of blowout preventers — the same device that failed in the Deepwater Horizon spill, which is intended to serve as a fail-safe against explosions in undersea oil and gas wells.

No longer require independent auditors to certify that safety and pollution prevention equipment works under extreme conditions. This would remove any federal requirement and instead allow [the] industry to adopt their own set of standards, the guideline industry utilized prior to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Scrap the requirement that an investigation into equipment failure be completed within 120 days. This would enable oil companies to delay indefinitely with no required date of completion.

Remove the federal government’s authority to regulate maximum or minimum drilling pressures at new sites. This important provision maintains a safe pressure for drilling that prevents surges and potential blowouts similar to what occurred in the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Our constituents, which were severely impacted by the Deepwater Horizon spill, vehemently oppose any effort to weaken these common-sense regulations, and increase the likelihood of another oil spill off the coast of Florida. We urge you to reject these ill-advised proposals.  Thank you for your time and consideration, and we look forward to your prompt response on this critically important matter.

Sincerely,

Jim Rosica’s review of top state government stories of 2017

Spoiler alert: If you’re a regular of this site, and reading this story, you can guess what the #1 pick is.

Otherwise, 2017 still offered a bounty of material to Tallahassee’s reporting ranks. We still chuckle at the uninitiated who ask, “What do you write about when the Legislature isn’t in session?”

Without further ado, here’s the admittedly subjective list of the Top 10 (and a half) stories to come out of the Capitol in the Year That Was:

#10 — State finally passes ride-sharing legislation: After years of trying, lawmakers OK’d, and Gov. Rick Scott signed, a bill (HB 221) creating statewide regulations for ride-booking companies like Uber and Lyft. In fact, lawmakers had considered such legislation for four years before passing a bill this year.

The legislation, among other things, requires Uber, Lyft and similar “transportation network companies” to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury or death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged into the app, but hasn’t yet secured a passenger. When a driver gets a ride, they need to have $1 million in coverage.

The bill also requires companies to have third parties run criminal background checks on drivers. It also pre-empts local ordinances and other rules on transportation network companies, or TNCs.

The losers? Local governments, whose attempts to regulate or rein in ride-share got pre-empted, and, well, taxi companies.

#9 — Rick Scott, Aramis Ayala and the debate over the death penalty: Ayala, a Democrat and the Orlando area’s top prosecutor, enraged Scott and conservative lawmakers when she announced in March she would not seek capital punishment in any murder cases.

Scott, a Naples Republican, began unilaterally reassigning death penalty-eligible cases to another state attorney. Republican Rep. Bob Cortes of Altamonte Springs called for Ayala to be removed from office for dereliction of duty.

The controversy made it to the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled Scott has the authority to transfer murder cases away because she refuses to pursue death. Ayala, elected in 2016, responded by announcing she would set up a special panel to review the death penalty’s appropriateness of each case.

But as of this month, Ayala and Scott were still sniping, with the governor accusing her of missing a deadline and blowing a capital punishment prosecution. Ayala denied that but did cut a plea deal with Emerita Mapp, in which she pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence for a Kissimmee slaying.

#8 — Puerto Rico migration could remake Central Florida: With many still without power after Hurricane Maria slammed the island in September, more than 250,000 residents of Puerto Rico have now decamped to Florida, most to the Central Florida region, with one advocate calling it a “migration of biblical proportions.”

Curbed said the “sudden influx will also put pressure on housing, social services, and the job market that have yet to be fully addressed by state, local, and federal officials.”

But Scott ordered the opening of “disaster relief centers” providing state services to thousands. Cortes filed a bill to address housing needs for evacuees. Sen. Vic Torres, a Kissimmee Democrat, pressed FEMA to provide more housing relief. U.S. Reps. Darren SotoStephanie Murphy, and Dennis Ross co-signed a letter to the feds for Florida get its full funding as a host state to support the migration.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart is working on a plan to allow Puerto Rican high schoolers to receive Puerto Rico diplomas in Florida, in case they can’t meet Florida’s graduation requirements. And those are just a few examples.

#7 — The fight over HB 7069: The wide-ranging education law passed this May — a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran — has been called a “brew of bad policy” and “a textbook example of a failure in government transparency” by opponents.

They say it will benefit charter schools to the detriment of traditional public schools. Supporters counter that it “helps all students” by holding failing public schools to account.

The law offers all kinds of changes, including requiring recess and reducing mandatory testing. It accelerates state tax dollar funding to for-profit and nonprofit charter and private schools, expands parents’ abilities to choose schools, and tightens Tallahassee’s control over what local school boards can and cannot do.

A group of school boards sued in the Supreme Court to block the law; the justices, in a 4-3 decision, have since transferred the case to a Tallahassee trial court to handle. 

#6 — Enterprise Florida, VISIT FLORIDA survive a hit: Corcoran went full frontal this year, trying to scuttle Scott’s favored organizations and a multitude of business incentives last Legislative Session.

He derided Enterprise Florida, the state’s jobs-creating organization, as little more than a dispenser of “corporate welfare.” Though a public-private partnership, it doles out mostly public dollars.

He slammed VISIT FLORIDA, the tourism marketing group, for secret deals and an overall lack of transparency. Scott and lawmakers eventually worked out a deal to save the agencies and create an $85 million Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, focused on promoting public infrastructure and job training.

Meantime, the organizations now are subject to heightened oversight. And Ken Lawson, the former DBPR secretary whom Scott moved to head the tourism agency, toured the state to meet with local tourism leaders. “I want to earn your trust and learn from you first hand. This has been a hard year for all of us,” he said.

#5 — Special elections churn the Legislature: The turnover in legislative seats began with former South Florida Sen. Frank Artiles resigning after an epithet-laden tirade against two black lawmakers was made public, eventually leading to the seat flipping to a Democrat, Annette TaddeoRepublican Jose Felix Diaz lost that race but had to resign the House to run, meaning his House seat is open.

Plant City Republican Dan Raulerson quit the House this year for health reasons; Republican Lawrence McClure won the District 58 seat in a December special election. Republican Alex Miller, just elected in 2016, also resigned her Sarasota-area House seat this summer. She cited a need to “spend more time at home than my service in the Legislature would allow.”

But wait — there’s more. Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens quit after his extramarital affair with a lobbyist came to light. Republican Neil Combee resigned the House to take a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the GOP’s Eric Eisnaugle also left the House to become an appellate judge, and Democrat Rep. Daisy Baez resigned before pleading guilty to perjury in a criminal case over her residency in Coral Gables-based House District 114.

#5(a) — Speaking of Artiles … : He resigned his Senate seat rather than face a hearing that could result in his expulsion. The Cuban-American Republican from Miami-Dade County made national news after he accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b—h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at The Governors Club.

Artiles also used a slang variation of the ‘N-word,’ referring to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. Thurston and Gibson are black. Artiles apologized on the Senate floor, but Thurston filed a Senate rules complaint. Artiles, elected to the Senate in 2016 after six years in the House, initially called efforts to remove him politically motivated. (Sound familiar?)

#4 Speaking of Clemens … : The Lake Worth Democrat was the first in the Legislature this year to resign after reports of sexual misconduct. “I have made mistakes I ashamed of, and for the past six months I have been focused on becoming a better person,” he said in a statement to news media. 

“But it is clear to me that task is impossible to finish while in elected office. The process won’t allow it, and the people of Florida deserve better. All women deserve respect, and by my actions, I feel I have failed that standard. I have to do better.”

Clemens, the incoming Senate Democratic Leader, apologized for having an affair with a lobbyist during the last legislative session. That woman “came into possession of Clemens’ laptop, gained access to all his contacts and personal information, then informed his wife of the tryst,” according to POLITICO Florida.

#3 — Jimmy Patronis replaces Jeff Atwater: Patronis had been a Panama City restaurateurstate representative and Public Service Commissioner when Scott tapped him to replace Atwater and become the state’s fourth Chief Financial Officer this June. Atwater quit his term early to become chief financial officer of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

As CFO, Patronis — a Scott loyalist — now is one vote on the Florida Cabinet, in addition to Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. And he has since announced he will seek a full term as CFO in 2018.

The position heads a roughly 2,600-employee agency that includes the state treasury and insurance regulators, as well as being state fire marshal. The CFO also oversees management of the state’s multibillion-dollar financial portfolio. The office was created after the 1997-98 Constitution Revision Commission recommended collapsing several state departments into one, including Insurance, Treasury, State Fire Marshal and Banking and Finance.

#2 — The politics and policy of Hurricane Irma responseIrma’s size and strength put the entire state on notice; thousands of residents and visitors left in advance of catastrophic winds and flooding.

The most significant casualties were in a South Florida nursing home. The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills was evacuated Sept. 13 after the facility lost power to its air conditioning system. Eight elderly residents died, with another six perishing in the weeks that followed. Most died from heat exposure. The deaths were later classified as homicides, with a police spokeswoman saying, “Who gets charged is part of the continuing investigation.”

Scott took his own heat after Democrats charged that he had ignored calls for help from the home’s administrators to his personal mobile phone; he said his staff took the messages and forwarded them to the appropriate state officials.

The governor also ordered an emergency generator rule to “ensur(e) that facilities across Florida are coming into compliance and are installing generators to keep their patients safe during a disaster,” he said. But the facilities themselves challenged that move.

The Florida House formed its own special panel to consider the state’s readiness to deal with monster hurricanes. The Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness has been meeting since October. 

#1 — Jack Latvala quits the SenateIn the face of two damning reports on his alleged serial sexual harassment, Latvala turned in his resignation, not effective till Jan. 5, on Dec. 20.

The Clearwater Republican said in a statement he “never intentionally dishonored my family, my constituents or the Florida Senate.” He first served in the Senate 1994-2002, then returned in 2010. Latvala was term-limited next year.

In his characteristically defiant manner, he said: “Political adversaries have latched onto this effort to rid our country of sexual harassment to try to rid the Florida Senate of me.” The 66-year-old Latvala admitted, however, that he “ … perhaps (had not) kept up with political correctness in my comments as well as I should have.”

An investigative report found Latvala “on multiple occasions” offered to trade his vote for sex with an unnamed female lobbyist. That bombshell came toward the end of retired appellate Judge Ronald V. Swanson‘s report into a complaint filed by Rachel Perrin Rogers, a top aide to future Senate President Wilton Simpson.

Perrin Rogers accused Latvala of sexually harassing her and assaulting her on a number of occasions over several years. A second investigation into sexual harassment claims against Latvala, prompted by a POLITICO Florida story, turned up another witness who bolstered an allegation that the senator would offer to trade sex for favorable votes on legislation.

Local DEA raids lead Bill Nelson to inquire on Canadian drug availability

Recent DEA raids on storefront shops that specialize in selling Canadian prescriptions drugs to Central Florida seniors have U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and others in Florida’s congressional delegation wondering whether there has been an unannounced change in federal policy.

In the past few weeks, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raided nine shops in the region Central Florida region including Tampa Bay, The Villages and Orlando, seizing records including customer lists, Canadian pharmacy vendors, drug transactions, and electric bills.

According to Bill Hepscher, co-owner of Canadian MedStore, which runs six of the raided stores, the businesses have been operating for up to 15 years, using direct computer links to allow customers, mostly senior citizens, to buy lower-priced prescription medications such as blood-pressure drugs.

Hepscher insisted the shops do not deal with any controlled substances such as opioids, and do not handle cash or medicines, but provide direct-link services to accredited pharmacies for mail delivery to Florida.

The FDA did not respond to an inquiry Wednesday from Florida Politics but has indicated that it is concerned about the quality of prescription medicines not approved under U.S. regulations.

Hepscher just returned from a trip to Washington D.C., where he met with Nelson and members of Congress or their staffs, including those of Republican U.S. Reps. Gus Bilirakis and Dennis Ross, and Democratic U.S. Reps. Charlie Crist, Kathy Castor, and Stephanie Murphy.

Nelson immediately responded Wednesday with a letter to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. demanding answers about why the DEA raided the Central Florida companies, and whether this meant the administration of President Donald Trump would oppose Americans buying lower-cost Canadian medicines when they are available. Hepscher said he received assurances of similar concerns from other Congressional offices.

“I appreciate that we need to keep dangerous drugs like fentanyl and counterfeit pharmaceuticals out of our country, but many of my constituents are confused about why they are suddenly receiving a seizure notice instead of their necessary medication — if there has been no change in policy,” Nelson wrote. “To the best of my knowledge, no new FDA policies have been publicly announced or shared with Congress.”

American access to Canadian drugs has been a long-standing issue for Nelson, who first got involved in 2004, according to a news release from his office. That year he sent a similar letter to the heads of the FDA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection after the government seized an elderly Florida couple’s medication ordered from Canada.

Two years later, at Nelson’s request, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee launched an investigation into the customs department seizure of prescription drugs purchased for personal use from pharmacies outside the U.S.

Later that same year, Nelson, along with Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, filed legislation, which Congress passed and the president signed into law, that allowed Americans crossing the Canadian border to bring back small amounts of prescription drugs.

Shortly after Nelson’s bill was approved, U.S. customs officials announced in Oct. 2006 that it would no longer seize individuals’ prescription drugs purchased from pharmacies outside the U.S.

That same year, Nelson received assurances from the FDA that it, too, would no longer act on small amounts of prescription drugs being imported into the U.S. for individual use, according to the news release.

Despite the agency’s 2006 announcement, some Floridians have reportedly received notices in the past couple of months indicating their prescription drugs are being held at their local post office at the request of the FDA, Nelson’s office reported Wednesday. That occurred around the same time as the raids on the Central Florida storefront operations.

“If there has been a change in policy, I urge the FDA to announce those changes publicly,” Nelson wrote. “Americans, especially our seniors, shouldn’t be left in the dark waiting for needed medication to arrive without clear guidance from the agency.”

Disaster relief package would help citrus industry

Florida’s storm-battered citrus growers are closer to landing federal relief sought since Hurricane Irma devastated large parts of the state’s agriculture industry in September.

The U.S. House on Wednesday will consider providing $2.6 billion for lost farm crops as part of an $81 billion disaster-relief package, which has been attached to the latest short-term “continuing resolution” needed to keep the federal government open.

The overall relief package, nearly double the amount requested in November by the White House to aid communities recently damaged by hurricanes and wildfires, comes after Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said last week there was no “plan B” for the state’s citrus industry without federal assistance.

“Today’s announcement of proposed emergency funding for Florida agriculture is the first bit of good news we’ve heard in months,” Putnam said in a prepared statement Tuesday.

If the package passes the U.S. House on Wednesday, it then would go to the Senate for consideration.

Putnam and Gov. Rick Scott have pushed Florida’s congressional delegation to attach assistance for the citrus industry to post-storm relief packages.

“I am glad to say we finally cleared the first major hurdle by securing this funding in the latest disaster supplemental bill,” U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, a Republican who is the only Floridian on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, announced late Monday.

The Florida agriculture industry, which Putnam’s department estimated took a $2.5 billion hit from Hurricane Irma, was left out of two earlier disaster-relief packages approved by Congress.

Florida is expected to get a large part of the money for farmers, with crop losses covered for citrus growers.

The biggest parts of the relief package are $27.6 billion that would go to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster-relief account and $27.8 billion for community development block grants that could be used toward flood prevention and infrastructure repairs.

Another $12.11 billion would go to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to repair damage from the natural disasters and to bulk up facilities from future risk, including $537 million for flood control and coastal repairs.

Another $3.99 billion would help public and private schools handling displaced students.

Florida citrus growers, including many in the southwestern part of the state who were hit hard, incurred an estimated $761 million in damage from Irma. However, that estimate from early October is expected to top $1 billion as flood damage to trees continues and as harvest numbers drop.

U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican, said the funding will help the industry, which before Irma had been fighting citrus greening disease and is now on pace for its lowest harvest since the 1944-1945 growing season.

“We finally reached a deal that will help Florida farmers recover from the storm with $2.6 billion and prevent these jobs from going overseas,” Ross said in a prepared statement. “While we still have a long road ahead, I’m glad that Florida citrus will have a fighting chance.”

Also Wednesday, the Florida Citrus Commission will discuss shifting about $556,000 from reserves — nearly matching the amount in its reserves as of Oct. 31 — to cover programs in the current fiscal year.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Darren Soto, Stephanie Murphy, Dennis Ross push funding for Puerto Rico evacuees

Saying more than 90,000 Puerto Ricans already have evacuated to Florida from Hurricane Maria’s devastation and far more are expected, U.S. Reps. Darren Soto, Stephanie Murphy, and Dennis Ross have co-signed a letter sent Monday to federal officials urging Florida get its full funding as a host state to support the migration.

The letters to U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New York Republican, and Ranking Member  Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, and to Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator William Long urge full funding for FEMA’s host-state program, and for FEMA to work with Florida to make sure direct payments are made for reimbursements.

Soto and Murphy are Orlando Democrats and Ross is a Lakeland Republican.

The host-state agreement is funded by Congress and allows FEMA to provide direct reimbursements to Florida’s cities for housing, schools, medical care, transportation and other necessary resources provided to evacuees.

“Hurricane Maria decimated the Island of Puerto Rico, resulting in the evacuation of tens of thousands of U.S. citizens to the mainland,” the letters said. “Despite Florida’s best efforts to assist Puerto Rican evacuees, our municipalities lack a sufficient supply of housing to accommodate the recent, and anticipated, arrivals of evacuees from Puerto Rico.”

The letters note that since Oct. 3, more than 90,000 Puerto Rico evacuees have arrived, “a number expected to increase significantly in coming months.”

“Florida’s municipalities and school boards need funds to support the Puerto Rican evacuees,” the letters continue. “They lack the financial resources necessary to develop  and implement a plan necessary to ensure evacuees arriving in Florida have access to appropriate housing, schools, medical care, transportation, and other necessary resources.”

The three Congress members’ districts include areas of Polk, Osceola, Orange and Seminole counties that are absorbing a large portion of the evacuees.

Democrats struggle to fundraise against Dennis Ross for 2018

Democrats in Florida’s 15th Congressional District think Republican Dennis Ross could be vulnerable in his quest for re-election in 2018.

What else can explain why no fewer than six Democrats have already filed to run against the Polk County incumbent next year?

Even with a full year until the midterms, Ross certainly isn’t taking anything for granted, raising more than $136,000 in the third quarter of this year. He now has more than $269,000 cash on hand for his re-election bid.

Meanwhile, Navy veteran and educator Andrew Learned led the fundraising among Democrats over the past three months, bringing in $7,333. He now has $12,861 total cash on hand.

Greg Pilkington, a 54-year-old from Indian Lakes Estates, raised $2,435 over the past three months. He has all of $210 cash on hand.

No other Democrat has done much on the fundraising front. Insurance broker Cameron Magnuson raised just $205 in the third quarter, and has raised a total of $3,297.

Former police officer and criminal investigator Ray Pena Jr. raised just $257 in the third quarter, and shows a negative cash on hand balance of $2,656.

No FECC data was available on the other Democrat in the race, Greg Williams.

Jeffrey Rabinowitz, who originally filed as a non-party-affiliated candidate, then switched to the Democratic primary, is no longer listed as a candidate, according to FEC records.

There is one Republican challenging Ross, Loretta Miller. She raised $1,525 in the past quarter, and has $1,530 cash on hand.

Florida’s CD 15 encompasses parts of Hillsborough, Polk and Lake Counties.

Last November, Ross defeated Democrat Jim Lange by 16 percentage points.

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.

Central Florida congressional members seek disaster call for Central Florida

Five Central Florida members of Congress – three Democrats and two Republicans – joined a call Wednesday for Central Florida counties to be designated so that individuals can become eligible for Federal Disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

U.S. Reps. Darren Soto and Val Demings of Orlando, Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park, Dennis Ross of Lakeland and Thomas Rooney of Okeechobee co-signed a letter to President Donald Trump urging the administration to designate Lake, Orange, Osceola, Polk, and Seminole Counties as eligible for individual assistance under the Federal Disaster Declaration for the State of Florida.

If granted, the designation would allow the Central Florida counties directly affected by Hurricane Irma to apply for FEMA financial assistance under the individuals and household program.

“We are working closely with our community and our emergency operations center to gather qualifiable evidence on the damage caused by Irma,” Soto, who led the effort, stated in a news release. “The FEM individual assistance emergency funds would help constituents after this historic storm. Together, we will rebuild our beloved Central Florida.”

On Sunday Trump issued a Major Disaster Declaration for the State of Florida, allowing for federal funds to be used in the recovery phase from Hurricane Irma. Although all 67 counties in the state were designated for public assistance, only sixteen primarily coastal counties’ residents are currently eligible for individual and household assistance.

Their letter noted that on Sunday Hurricane Irma was expected to go through Tampa Bay and then northwest from there, but instead veered east and came through western Central Florida, pounding the inland counties. The letter also noted the widespread power outages in Central Florida, affecting well over half of all customers, as evidence of the storm’s impact.

Dennis Ross visits Irma … at 10,000 feet

As Floridians flee from Hurricane Irma or hunker down and await her arrival U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican, joined the crew of “Kermit,” a Lockheed WP-3D Orion turboprop hurricane hunter aircraft to meet her Friday.

Reached at his home just an hour after what he called an amazing four trips through the eye of the hurricane, he began making his preparations for the massive storm.

“This thing is twice the size of Andrew,” he said. “I am trying to get things together here at the house and reeling after the trip. Members of the Florida and Georgia Congressional delegations conferenced with FEMA officials today. They already have help staged and ready to go after the storm.”

Ross and the crew left Lakeland Linder Airport at 3 a.m. Friday and caught up with the hurricane over the Caribbean Islands. It was easy to see that the tremendous storm is indeed larger than the width of the state.

“We flew into the eye the first time at 10,000 feet, and as it was still dark you could see the stars above,” Ross said. “And during the three additional trips through at 8,000 feet, you could still see a little sky, but the eye was unsettled. The inner walls die down and are replaced by another wall.”

The congressman praised what he described as the complete thoroughness of the crew as it methodically went through the hurricane time and again to gather the information needed by the National Hurricane Center and emergency officials.

“We did a figure four inside the hurricane,” he said, “dropping twenty sensors every so many miles, then did a 130 degree left turn and dropped again, then another 130-degrees turning left and one more time turning left 130 degrees.”

Dennis Ross to fly with Hurricane Hunters, inspect Hurricane Irma

Though it’s already considered the biggest hurricane ever to hit Florida, Dennis Ross wants an even closer look at the severity of Hurricane Irma.

The Lakeland Republican congressman announced Thursday he will be taking off in the middle of the night, joining hurricane hunters reporting on the intensity of the storm.

Ross will fly with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Marine and Aviation Operation pilots, officers of the NOAA Corps, and scientists aboard NOAA’s WP-3 Hurricane Hunter aircraft as they conduct hurricane surveillance, intensity forecasting and reconnaissance of Irma.

Beginning 3 a.m. Friday, Ross will take off from the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport NOAA Aircraft Operations Center, returning at 3 p.m. that afternoon.

The Aircraft Operations has become the new home to three NOAA Hurricane Hunters, after the Air Force opted to eject the program out of MacDill Air Force Base last year. The Air Force said that they needed to make room for eight new KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling jets, beginning this month.

Ross also announced Thursday that the Federal Aviation Administration will provide grants totaling $2.8 million to Lakeland Linder Airport for multiple infrastructure projects:

“From exciting facility expansion to relocating NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters to Lakeland Linder, Airport Director Gene Conrad’s leadership has put this airport on a flourishing path for years to come,” he said. “The services, research and information provided by Lakeland Linder are vital to our local and national economy and advancement. I look forward to working with my colleagues in D.C. and back home to continue this growth for our community.”

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