Hurricane Irma Archives - Florida Politics

Hurricane Irma claims top 1 million

With more than 1 million claims filed, estimates of insured losses in Florida from last year’s Hurricane Irma have surpassed $11.08 billion, according to the state Office of Insurance Regulation.

Even as claims have slowed more than a year after the massive and deadly September 2017 storm, insurers recorded an additional $600 million in estimated losses through more than 5,500 new claims over the past three months.

In all, 1,002,821 claims had been filed from Irma. The numbers posted Thursday might be the final update from the office, which said future data calls “may” be announced for the storm that has drawn claims from all 67 counties.

The state agency doesn’t release data by individual insurance companies, asserting protection of trade secrets. The numbers also don’t include most agriculture losses, which the state has estimated at $2.5 billion, or damage inflicted by the storm on government facilities, including buildings, roads, parks and beaches.

One company that publicly posts numbers, state-backed Citizens Property Insurance, has reported $1.81 billion in losses from Hurricane Irma through an estimated 70,800 claims.

By comparison, Hurricane Michael, which hit the Panhandle a little more than a month ago, had produced 3,189 claims as of Wednesday by Citizens’ policyholders, which the company estimated will result in $142 million in paid losses and expenses.

Overall, Michael had drawn 119,160 claims worth an estimated $2.94 billion in insured losses as of last Friday, according to the Office of Insurance Regulation.

Among the Irma filings, insurance companies had closed 93 percent of all residential claims and 76 percent of commercial-property claims.

Of the 838,109 residential claims filed, 522,493 had been settled with some payment and 256,605 resulted in no money changing hands. Insurance officials have noted the amounts of damages often fail to reach policyholders’ hurricane deductibles.

Across the state, the top counties for damage claims were Miami-Dade with 128,661, Collier with 95,273, Broward with 84,042, Lee with 84,032 and Orange with 75,003.

Irma made landfall twice in Florida on Sept. 10, 2017. It first hit Cudjoe Key, less than 30 miles northeast of Key West, and later hit Collier County before running up the peninsula.

Outside of South Florida, more than 90 percent of Irma claims have been closed.

In Miami-Dade County, 18 percent of claims remain open, while 13.2 percent remain unsettled in Broward.

Monroe County, which includes the Keys, had seen 30,896 claims, of which 59 percent led to insurance payments. In Monroe, 7.5 percent of claims remained open.


Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Nursing homes seek more time on generator requirements

More than 40 percent of Florida nursing homes are asking health-care regulators for more time to meet backup-power requirements pushed by Gov. Rick Scott after Hurricane Irma last year.

But Justin Senior, the state’s top health-care regulator, said his agency won’t approve waiver requests for deadbeat facilities that haven’t worked over the past several months to carry out emergency backup-power plans.

“Any facility that has a delay in implementation will need to submit evidence that shows they are well underway in their project before they are granted a variance,” Senior, secretary of the state Agency for Health Care Administration, said.

A News Service of Florida review of state documents shows that between Sept.  4 and Nov. 15, 305 nursing homes submitted requests for “variances” with AHCA asking for additional time to make modifications necessary to have backup generators and accommodations to store 72 hours of fuel onsite.

By contrast, 184 nursing homes had reported to the state that they had made the necessary changes. That’s about 27 percent of the licensed nursing homes in the state.

Included in those that have made the changes is Marianna Health & Rehabilitation Center in Jackson County. Administrator Melinda Gay remembers initially thinking the rules were unnecessary, after surviving hurricanes Opal and Ivan.

But she now considers the changes a “blessing.” Three months after modifying its generators to comply with the new rules, the facility was in the path of Hurricane Michael, a Category 4 hurricane that ripped through Northwest Florida in October.

Before the backup-power requirements, the facility had three generators: one to provide power to such things as life-safety equipment; a smaller generator to provide air conditioning in the therapy gym; and one that was a backup for the largest generator.

“With the modifications, we were able to power the HVAC (heating and air-conditioning system) in the dining room, a few resident rooms, a conference room and offices that could be used for resident cool zones,” Gay said.

The city-owned facility sits on a large tract of land, so getting necessary permits for fuel storage wasn’t problematic. Moreover, Gay said the facility spent less than $30,000 on plans and construction to comply with the new rules. That’s far less than the $250,000 the state provided veterans nursing homes to purchase generators.

The Legislature estimated industry-wide costs for nursing homes to comply with the rules would be $121.3 million over the first five years, about $66 million of which would be offset by taxpayers through Medicaid. The cost to assisted living facilities was estimated to be $243 million. Because ALFs generally don’t treat Medicaid patients, those cost wouldn’t be offset by taxpayers.

Susan Anderson, vice president of public policy and legal affairs for Florida Senior Living, the trade association that represents some of the state’s largest ALFs, pointed to high costs of compliance.

“It’s a large (financial) burden coming in a very short space of time,” Anderson said.

At least 173 ALFs have filed for variances with the Florida Department of Elder Affairs seeking additional time to comply with the rules, which require providers to be able to maintain cool zones.

According to a state website, nearly 55 percent of assisted living facilities have implemented backup power plans.

The rules are somewhat of an about-face for Scott, who came into office railing against costly regulations on Florida businesses. But he moved aggressively to require generators at nursing homes and ALFs after residents died at a Broward County nursing home that lost its air-conditioning system in Hurricane Irma.

Senior worked with long-term care lobbyists to help create a pair of rules. Facilities were required to amend comprehensive emergency-management plans to include detailed explanations of how they would obtain generators and fuel.

The plans had to be submitted and approved by local officials and fully implemented by June 1 with the start of this year’s hurricane season.

The rules allowed for long-term care providers to seek time extensions and to remain in good standing. To get extensions, they had to show they had the ability to have generators to keep the facilities cool and could access 96 hours of fuel.

The temporary extensions, however, expire Jan. 1, triggering the onslaught of variance requests.

Nursing home and ALF lobbyists worried all along that the timeline in the rules would be difficult for facilities to meet, but the state maintained the Jan. 1 deadline for compliance.

Bob Asztalos, chief lobbyist for the Florida Health Care Association, a statewide nursing home group, said providers aren’t lollygagging but are delayed by permitting and building-code requirements. The mandates also have increased demand for generators, which has contributed to an order backlog.

Senior acknowledged that the timelines were aggressive but also said that “in many cases” the facilities are going beyond what the rules require and installing HVAC systems that will cool entire buildings, not just designated cool zone areas.

“These are lasting improvements, which will allow emergency operations officials to use a more targeted approach in the aftermath of storms and other periods of prolonged power outage,’’ he said.

But Senior said that before the agency grants variances, it will need to see proof that facilities have made “great strides” to comply with the rules and that delays are out of the facilities’ control.

“The rules have been in effect for months now, and a facility that has procrastinated is unlikely to meet the state’s strict variance standards,” he said.

Meanwhile the state has moved ahead with penalizing a handful of ALFs that aren’t in compliance. In November, the state has entered into settlement agreements with more than a dozen ALF providers across the state to settle allegations that they failed to meet the requirements, according to a review of information on a state website.

Though AHCA is authorized to collect upward of $500 assessments, the state agreed to levy $250 assessments instead.

Court weighs nursing home request for records

An appeals court Tuesday waded into a dispute about a Broward County nursing home’s request that the state hand over thousands of death certificates from around the time Hurricane Irma slammed into the state last year.

The dispute, which involves questions about how public records should be handled, has drawn particular attention because the request for death certificates was made by The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills — a facility where residents died after the hurricane.

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis in April ordered the Florida Department of Health to turn over the 5,907 death certificates from across the state to the nursing home, citing Florida’s broad public records law. Lewis in June found the Department of Health in contempt and ordered it to immediately release the records, shielding only information about the causes of death.

The Department of Health filed an appeal after the contempt ruling, putting on hold the release of the records. During arguments Tuesday before a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal, department attorney Christine Lamia said the release of the records should be governed by a law dealing with vital statistics and death certificates, not the broader public-records law.

Lamia said the records would be available under the vital-statistics law, but each would be reviewed to determine if information should be redacted before their release.

“We’re not disputing they can get them under (the vital statistics law) if they follow the procedures,” Lamia said.

But Timothy Elliott, an attorney for the nursing home, said the Department of Health was trying to draw a “dichotomy” between members of the public who can routinely request copies of death certificates and the nursing home’s request for records “en masse.”

The three-judge panel questioned both attorneys, with Judge Lori Rowe asking pointed questions of Elliott. For example, she questioned whether Lewis’ April ruling adequately shielded from release information about causes of death.

“How can the Department of Health be held in contempt for an order that is ambiguous on its face?” Rowe asked.

Appellate courts typically take weeks or months to issue rulings.

The records issue is part of a series of legal disputes between The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills and the state after the Sept. 10, 2017, hurricane knocked out the facility’s air conditioning. The sweltering nursing home was evacuated three days later, with authorities attributing as many as 12 deaths to problems at the nursing home after the storm.

Gov. Rick Scott’s administration suspended the nursing home’s license and its participation in the Medicaid program and ultimately moved to revoke the facility’s license. The nursing home has challenged the revocation in the state Division of Administrative Hearings, and a decision in that case is pending.

In seeking the death certificates, an attorney for the nursing home indicated during a June hearing that the facility is seeking the addresses of locations where other people died during and after the massive storm. Elliott said Tuesday that the nursing home wants experts to be able to analyze the data.

Regardless, Elliott said the Department of Health should be required to turn over the information.

“The point is, the motivation should not be questioned,” he said. “We are entitled to the records under (the public records law) as well as (the vital statistics law).”

After Michael: Are we in for another truck war?

Recall last year during the cleanup of Hurricane Irma that, due to a variety of factors, debris cleanup was a mess. Pun very much intended.

Irma hit the Sunshine State on the heels of Hurricane Harvey in turning the greater Houston area into a lake for weeks. The back-to-back crises meant that truckers and haulers were charging a premium and local governments — constrained by their contracts — had a hard time getting debris removed.

That was then. This is now.

Hurricane Michael cleanup seems to be going quite smoothly by comparison. All the major debris removal companies report that cleanup efforts are hitting checkpoints and sticking to budgets. The storm was isolated and the debris removal pros can do what they do – bring in haulers and truckers from around the region to focus on the damaged parts of the Panhandle.

This is the way it is supposed to work.

If the Trump White House has its way, however, that could change tout suite.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been given a mission by the White House to manage debris removal throughout Georgia. And when the White House calls, you take it seriously.

Except this may present a very big problem for North Florida thanks to one of the contractors pitching in on cleanup efforts in Florida, Minnesota-based Ceres Environmental, could be lured away with a contract weighing in at five times the going rate for debris removal in the Sunshine State.

After what seemed like a move back to normal, that’s a curveball that could very well land Florida in the same situation it was in shortly after Irma.

For those needing a refresher: Expect to see the debris removal slow to a crawl south of the Florida-Georgia line as the trucking companies haul ass out of here in a Trump-sanctioned Georgia gold rush.

Yet again, Georgia beats Florida… Water Wars, anyone?

Under the category of “you heard it here first,” there are two other considerations that may bring significant political consequences.

Ceres Environmental, alongside DRC and AshBritt, was among the companies subpoenaed by the Florida Attorney General’s office post-Irma for “delaying the work or requesting higher rates.”

The same outfit was also forced to pay a $500,000 fine by the U.S. Department of Labor for underpaying workers in Puerto Rico during the Hurricane Maria cleanup effort.

If the Trump White House meddles in the cleanup effort at Florida’s expense, there will be hell to pay at the polls.

So here’s my advice to Gov. Rick Scott and his team: Now would be a really good time to call your pals on Pennsylvania Avenue to let them know that if Washington throws a wrench in Florida’s recovery efforts, it’s likely he’ll be spending a lot more time with his grandkids come January.

Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay lands $750K in hurricane recovery grants

Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay has been awarded a pair of grants totaling $750,000 to fund its efforts to help residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed during Hurricane Irma last year.

The funds came to the non-profit organization by way of a $500,000 grant from the American Red Cross and a $250,000 grant from Volunteer Florida, the state government agency that promotes volunteerism in Florida.

“The unmet disaster recovery need in our area continues to be great, especially for our most vulnerable residents,” said RTTB executive director Jose Garcia. “We are extremely grateful to the American Red Cross and Volunteer Florida for their respective financial support, and appreciate the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of local residents who remain victims of critical home damage from Hurricane Irma.”

The $750,000 in grant funds will cover the costs to bring 100 homes damaged but not destroyed by Hurricane Irma back up to livable standards.

Examples of the kind of work needed to get those homes back up to code include repairing or replacing roofs, soffit, fascia, and drywall. RTTB will also use some of the money to do preventative work that will help at-risk homes stay dry, safe, and livable.

Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay is classified as a 501 (c)(3) organization, a federal tax status which allows individuals to deduct from their taxes any contributions they make to the charity.

RTTB is one of several regional branches of Rebuilding Together, including five other affiliates in Florida — Rebuilding Together Broward County, Rebuilding Together Miami-Dade, Rebuilding Together North Central Florida, Rebuilding Together of the Palm Beaches and Rebuilding Together Orlando.

Lobby Up: Hurricane cleanup firm AshBritt Environmental hires Ballard Partners

AshBritt Environmental, a “rapid-response disaster recovery and special environmental services contractor” in Deerfield Beach, has hired Ballard Partners‘ namesake Brian Ballard and its Christina Daly Brodeur.

Veteran influencer Ron Book also remains the company’s lobbyist, according to lobbying registration records accessed Wednesday.

Daly Brodeur, formerly Secretary of Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice under Gov. Rick Scott, joined Ballard’s firm last month.

The new registration comes as the Gulf coast cleans up and starts rebuilding after category 4 Hurricane Michael ravaged it and a swath of north Florida last week.

AshBritt rose to prominence in the disaster mitigation industry after Hurricane Andrew passed through South Florida in August 1992.

At the time, founder Randy Perkins and his wife were running a small landscaping company which borrowed two wood chippers to help with Andrew as a local hurricane cleanup contractor.

Since then, AshBritt has become one of the nation’s leading disaster-recovery and debris cleanup firms, assisting after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, 2012’s “Superstorm” Sandy and last year’s Hurricane Irma. 

The firm’s history is not without controversy. “With the company’s success came accusations that Perkins overcharged the federal government, stiffed a consultant and subcontractors and used campaign donations to influence politicians to give him no-bid government contracts,” TCPalm has reported.

And the Miami Herald last month reported that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general now “is conducting an audit of debris-removal contracts in the Florida Keys approved right after Hurricane Irma ransacked the island chain.” Contracts were with six companies, including AshBritt, the paper reported.

Perkins self-funded an unsuccessful bid for Florida’s 18th Congressional District as a Democrat in 2016. He reportedly was worth about $200 million as of last year. 

Former Congressman Patrick Murphy vacated the Treasure Coast seat to mount a run for U.S. Senate. Murphy lost to incumbent Republican Marco Rubio; Perkins later lost to Republican Brian Mast.

State Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat, is AshBritt’s general counsel and director of government relations, according to his member page

The company was named after two of Perkins’ daughters, Ashley and Brittany, who is now its CEO.

In 2016, Perkins stepped down as CEO “to focus on the AshBritt Foundation, his work with mental health, and other business and philanthropic endeavors,” his website says. “The AshBritt Foundation supports communities impacted by disaster or crisis and internal and external workforce development and job training programs, with a focus on working with veterans.”

Perkins also sits on the board of directors of Lauren’s Kids, the child sexual abuse prevention organization founded by Ron Book’s daughter, Democratic state Sen. Lauren Book of Plantation.

Lawmakers wait to see if storm action is needed

Roads are out. Some schools are rubble. Housing needs are growing.

The next leaders of the Florida Legislature say they’re ready to assist Gov. Rick Scott or state agencies in the recovery from devastating Hurricane Michael. They just need to be asked.

“If the governor identifies an unmet need that requires swift legislative action, we will certainly work with him to address it,” incoming Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, said Monday.

But Galvano and incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican, are not expecting such action until more is known about the impacts of the storm, which came ashore Wednesday near Panama City with 155 mph sustained winds. Michael plunged more than 400,000 utility customers into the dark and leveled homes and businesses in a deadly path that cut north across rural Panhandle communities into Southwest Georgia.

“In the here and now, if the governor or any agency needs resources or assistance for issues created by Hurricane Michael, the Florida House stands ready to help,” Oliva said.

State lawmakers are set to return to Tallahassee shortly after the Nov. 6 election for an organizational session that includes seating new members and formally making Oliva and Galvano the leaders of their respective chambers.

The 2019 Legislative Session will start in March. But lawmakers can take actions in the interim by holding special sessions or convening the Joint Legislative Budget Commission, which is made up of House and Senate members and can shift money to address needs.

Galvano noted that lawmakers from the hurricane-impacted areas have been working with Scott, Cabinet members and state agencies, while Senate staff members in Tallahassee has been coordinating with district offices to ensure the continuation of constituent services.

Also, Galvano said state budget reserves are available for Scott to direct toward the storm response.

“The governor has broad executive authority to utilize those reserves to allocate state resources needed to further a comprehensive response in the immediate aftermath of the storm,” Galvano said.

In waiting, Oliva said he would also like to see if measures crafted by the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness after last year’s Hurricane Irma had any effect.

“It is my hope that many of those recommendations became a reality, but we will likely assess what went wrong and what went right after we all work to help our fellow Floridians put their lives back together,” Oliva said.

Many of the post-Irma proposals were designed to address issues in the agriculture industry and more densely populated portions of the state, where major highways that serve as arteries for food, water and fuel also are primary evacuation routes.

Money was set aside for a variety of purposes, such as $15 million for affordable housing in the Irma-battered Keys and $11.2 million for beach restoration.

Lawmakers also approved, as part of a wider tax-relief package, a property-tax break for homeowners displaced by Irma. In addition, they approved tax breaks on fuel used to transport agricultural products after the storm; on agricultural fencing materials purchased for repairs after the storm; and for citrus packing houses that had their businesses interrupted by Irma or by the deadly disease citrus greening.

Despite the changes, other storm-related proposals — such as taking steps to strengthen the electric grid, create a strategic fuel-reserve task force, and use rail-tank cars to bring fuel into evacuation areas to avoid a repeat of runs on gas stations — failed to advance during this year’s Legislative Session.

Rep. Jeanette Nunez, a Miami Republican who chaired the select committee and is now the running mate of GOP gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, said after the 2018 Session that she hoped lawmakers would try to tackle some of the recommendations that failed to advance rather than grow complacent.

Human rights no concern as UAE cuts Jacksonville a check

On Monday, Northside Jacksonville’s A. Philip Randolph Career Academies saw Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry receive the U.S. Ambassador from the UAE, Yousef Al-Otaiba.

Money was on the line. $2.775 million, to be exact (part of a $10 million grant to be divided between several cities hit hardest by Hurricane Irma.)

Indeed, portions of this grant have already been delivered to Florida, with Collier County receiving its $2.7 million cut in August.

While local leaders appreciate revenue, there is a parallel story to the check: the UAE’s distressing and worsening human rights record.

The UAE has made a longstanding practice of storm relief, and there are those who believe it is a distraction from the regime’s human rights record, which is in keeping with the non-Democratic states of the Middle East.

Human Rights Watch spotlights imprisonment of political dissidents and a “sustained assault on freedom of expression and association since 2011,” which includes the death penalty for people who are determined to have worked to “undermine national unity or social peace.”

Definitions for that are subjective.

The UAE also actively participates in the ongoing war in Yemen, a proxy battle between the Saudis and Iran; its role, on the Saudi side, includes helming counterterrorism ops and running detention centers.

Furthermore, HRW charges the UAE with detaining and disappearing political prisoners (similarly to the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi after a visit to a Saudi consulate this month), exploiting migrant labor, and systemic discrimination against women (facilitated by Sharia Law).

In the context of an erosion of human rights backdropped against a wave of post-storm generosity, we asked the Ambassador and the Mayor if such donations were intended to gloss over a record not in accordance with the mores of liberal democracies.

When we asked about the imprisoned political dissident Ahmed Mansoor, locked up as of this writing for 10 years for tweeting criticisms of the regime, the Ambassador smiled.

“We’re here to talk about our gifts to Jacksonville,” Al-Otaiba asserted. “If you want to ask me a question about what our laws are, we’re happy to address that. But that’s not why we’re here today.”

Curry spotlighted the “two-million dollars, invested in vulnerable populations in Jacksonville.”

Regarding “foreign policy,” Curry said “there’s experts in Washington, elected leaders in Washington who handle our foreign policy,” before pivoting to thank the Ambassador once more.

Applause filled the room, followed by stern looks from the Ambassador’s handlers, and a conversation with a plainclothes member of law enforcement who questioned whether this reporter was a real member of the media.

From there, Curry and Al-Otaiba toured the school. Media was invited along until the two went through a door, at which point reporters and cameramen were told to wait for a post-event availability.

Time passed, and three SUVs (two attached to the Ambassador, and another for the Mayor) departed the premises.

The money will be used for various expenditures, including computer labs for Raines and Ribault High Schools, restoration of a local park, purchase of mobile medical units, with approximately $1.45 million going to projects in the Ken Knight Road area, which was among the slowest in the city to recover from Irma.


Citrus growers get a dose of good news

A year after Hurricane Irma ravaged Florida’s citrus industry, growers are on pace to slightly surpass their production from two years ago.

Forecast numbers announced Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are still down from where the industry has been most of the past five decades. But the projections are encouraging for an industry that has been on a steady decline because of citrus greening disease and pressures from development.

Florida Citrus Commission Chairman Ellis Hunt called the forecast a reflection of the work by growers.

“To nearly come back to production levels of just a few years ago shows that we are moving in the right direction and putting the appropriate caretaking practices in place,” Hunt said a prepared statement.

The federal forecast, the first of the season, estimates that the industry will fill 86.9 million 90-pound boxes — a standard measurement — over the next nine months.

The production figure, which includes oranges, grapefruit and other specialty crops such as tangerines and tangelos, would be a 75 percent increase from the Irma-impacted 2017-2018 growing season. It also would be 11 percent above the 2016-2017 yield, though that was a five-decade low for production.

The 49.58 million boxes filled in the past season — as growers reported losses of up to 70 percent because of Irma flooding groves and uprooting trees — was the lowest crop output since the 1941-1942 season.

Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, said officials are pleased growers are getting positive news, which they “haven’t heard in a long time.”

“After combating greening for so long and going through Hurricane Irma last season, today’s forecast means we truly could be on a path to recovery,” Shepp said in a statement.

Based on field surveys, USDA state statistician Mark Hudson said Florida is projected to fill 79 million boxes with oranges. That would be up from 44.95 million boxes filled in the past season and from 68.85 million boxes two seasons ago.

Grapefruit production is projected to increase from 3.88 million boxes in the past season to 6.7 million boxes this season. The production of red and white grapefruit is still down from two seasons ago when 7.76 million boxes were filled.

Specialty fruit account for another 1.2 million boxes in the new forecast.

Through the mid-1990s, the state’s citrus growers regularly filled more than 200 million boxes a year of oranges and 50 million boxes a year of grapefruit.

The forecast comes as an application process is underway for growers to receive federal Irma assistance — via a $343 million block grant to Florida out of a wider disaster-relief package signed into law in February by President Donald Trump.

Recovery starts amid ‘unimaginable’ destruction

More than 400,000 utility customers remained without power Thursday morning as thousands of rescue and utility crew members spread out across coastal and rural Panhandle communities to respond to the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Michael.

Gulf Power, which provides electricity in hard-hit Bay County, anticipates people in the impacted areas could be without power for weeks as the utility rebuilds parts of its system.

Gov. Rick Scott called the destruction from Wednesday’s storm “unimaginable,” as “homes are gone, businesses are gone.”

A state emergency-management official said all hospitals in the impacted region have reported some form of “critical failure” — water and sewage problems or infrastructure issues such as crumbling walls — that required patients to be relocated and medical field hospitals to be set up.

The official said that after Hurricane Irma in September 2017, a field hospital was required in the Florida Keys for a year, and similar situations may be required with Michael.

Similar issues were arising at nursing homes, and crews were flying in supplies to Florida State Hospital at Chattahoochee, which serves patients with mental illness.

Meanwhile, the state is expecting a surge in humanitarian needs, from a lack of food and water to housing.

Scott was set to travel Thursday afternoon with the Florida National Guard to Panama City and Mexico Beach, where Michael came ashore midday Wednesday with 155 mph maximum sustained winds, the strongest ever recorded in the region.

Scott, who expressed frustration about people dismissing evacuation orders on Tuesday as Michael rapidly grew into a Category 4 storm, told evacuees not to return home as roads remain closed by flooding, downed trees and power lines.

“It’s going to take some time to survey and clear all the roads,” Scott said.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted late Thursday morning that President Donald Trump granted a request for federal assistance for 14 counties: Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Hamilton, Jackson, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Suwannee, Taylor and Wakulla.

Scott said he talked to Trump early Thursday.

“He is committed to making every federal resource available to help the recovery,” Scott said.

In a letter to Trump on Wednesday requesting assistance, Scott wrote that the state had already spent close to $40 million on its response.

The Florida National Guard has deployed 3,500 members for search-and-rescue and humanitarian aid, with assistance from National Guard units from as far away as New York and Kansas. The Florida Highway Patrol has 450 troopers working in the Panhandle, while 150 Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers are conducting rescue missions.

Search teams — working by air, boat and on the ground — have entered Panama City, Mexico Beach, Alligator Point, Eastpoint, St. George Island and Apalachicola. The U.S. Coast Guard ran 10 rescue missions into the region Wednesday night.

The Red Cross is bringing in 500 disaster relief workers.

More than 5,000 people were in 34 shelters that have been opened across the region.

Scott said one benefit of the rapidly moving Michael was that it hit during the day and was out of the state before sunset.

More than 19,000 utility workers from companies in Florida and across the country have started assessing the damages.

The Division of Emergency Management reported 400,666 customers of Gulf Power, Duke Energy and a number of smaller utilities were without power Thursday morning.

Pensacola-based Gulf Power, which reported some 120,000 customers were in the dark at one point, said progress was made in its westernmost regions, but the hardest-hit areas may take weeks to rebuild.

“The Gulf Power system held strong from Pensacola to Fort Walton Beach — a testament to the investments we’ve made to harden our infrastructure,” Gulf Power spokesman Jeff Rogers said in a statement. “But the hardest hit areas around Panama City may need to be rebuilt from the ground up.”

Bay County, which includes Panama City and Tyndall Air Force Base, was 98 percent without power Thursday morning, according to the state Division of Emergency Management.

Calhoun, Gadsden and Jackson counties, which are north of Bay County, were 100 percent without power. Gulf and Franklin counties, which are on the coast, and Holmes County, which is to the north, were all more than 90 percent without power.

The storm forced the closure of Interstate 10 west of Tallahassee, requiring some rescue crews to take alternate routes west from staging areas.

Although Tallahassee avoided a direct hit from the Category 4 storm, Mayor Andrew Gillum said on Facebook that “our community has been pretty significantly impacted.” He said 110,000 residences and businesses were without power Thursday, morning, representing about 90 percent of the customers served by the city’s electric service.

In addition, Gillum said the storm knocked out one of the city’s sewage systems, including the backup power source.

By comparison, about 75,000 customers lost power during Hurricane Hermine, which struck Tallahassee in 2016, said Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor.


Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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