Hurricane Irma Archives - Page 4 of 45 - Florida Politics

Irma legal assistance hotline winds down

Floridians needing legal assistance on Hurricane Irma issues have one more week to seek help through a toll-free hotline.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency hotline, which operates through a partnership with The Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division and the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, will close June 15, the federal agency announced Friday.

The hotline is available for help with disaster assistance from FEMA and other federal and state agencies; landlord-tenant or foreclosure issues; replacing legal documents lost in the disaster; home repair contracts and contractors; and filing insurance claims.

Since Irma hammered Florida in September, lawyers volunteering their time on the hotline — 866-550-2929 — have made 2,011 referrals.

Mark Wilson: Consumer Protection Coalition warns Floridians to beware of AOB abuse this hurricane season

Hurricane season charged into Florida Friday with one storm already on the books. Subtropical Storm Alberto dampened many Memorial Day festivities but serves as a good reminder that Floridians must be prepared for storms and the damage they may cause.

Protecting against storms doesn’t end with stocking up on supplies and shoring up property. It also means being on the alert for insurance abuse and scams, and not becoming a victim.

Hurricanes and significant weather events create opportunities for unscrupulous contractors and their attorneys to take advantage of Assignment of Benefits, or AOB, when dealing with insurance claims. By pressuring consumers into signing an AOB, they take control of an insurance policy, paving the way to inflate the cost or scope of repairs, then file lawsuits against insurance companies that deny the claim. Consumers pay the price in the form of higher insurance rates.

We saw this last year during Hurricane Irma and, unfortunately, we’re likely to see it again this year, unless Florida’s Legislature does something to stop AOB abuse. Consumers who sustain damage during a storm should call their insurer or their agent first before signing an AOB.

The Consumer Protection Coalition, which is led by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, has been working since 2016 to change AOB laws to curb the abuse. Proposed bills would allow consumers to rescind an AOB without penalties or fines and require contractors to submit written cost estimates for work, among other common-sense provisions.

For the past two years, the legislation has been approved by the Florida House but has died in the Senate, despite growing evidence of the problem and testimonials from victims of AOB abuse. AOB abuse has grown from being nearly nonexistent 15 years ago into a statewide problem that’s threatening the dream of homeownership for many Floridians and the accessibility of affordable insurance.

While it’s unfortunate that Florida must endure another hurricane season without AOB reform, we are hopeful lawmakers and incoming Senate and House leaders will see the harmful impact AOB abuse is having on hardworking Florida families and pass meaningful legislation in 2019.

The early arrival of Florida’s first storm, coupled with forecasters’ predictions of an active hurricane season, should be warnings for all Floridians to protect themselves against AOB abuse.


Mark Wilson is president and chief executive officer of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Emmett Reed: Preparation is priority at Florida’s long-term care centers

Florida nursing care centers and their residents have seen more than their share of hurricane seasons, but few have carried the wallop we all experienced last year.

The destructive season was highlighted by Hurricane Irma, a Category 4 storm that raced up the spine of our state, causing widespread devastation and resulting in the tragic loss of life at a South Florida nursing home. That center wasn’t part of Florida Health Care Association (FHCA), but the more than 550 nursing centers we do represent all shared in the sadness for the families and the black cloud it left hanging over our profession.

Many Floridians are unaware of the countless acts of heroism by caregivers and the hundreds of successful evacuations and shelterings in place our members conducted during Irma.

With the 2018 hurricane season almost upon us, it’s important to recognize the work they have continued in the months that followed to ensure the safety of the frail residents entrusted to our care.

The best thing any Floridian can do during hurricane season is preparing well before storms make landfall. Nursing centers are no different, and last year, FHCA began monitoring the path of Hurricane Irma early. This provided many of our centers ample time to complete important tasks to meet the needs of some 68,000 residents, such as boarding up windows with metal shutters, gathering 7-10 days of medication for each of our residents, and assuring that evacuation plans were in order.

Since then, our members have been hard at work on preparations for the upcoming season. Building on the lessons of 2017, nursing centers have strengthened their preparedness measures, working closely with local emergency managers to help them understand the complex circumstances and needs found inside a long-term care center.

Since the tragedy at the Hollywood Hills center, FHCA has worked closely with Gov. Rick Scott and the state to implement a workable new generator requirement. Our centers have cooperated with community preparedness officials to ensure that plans will better protect residents’ health and well-being and maintain their comfort in the event of a power outage, making sure local authorities understand the need to keep nursing centers a top priority for emergency services, including restoring power.

The goal is for every nursing center to be in compliance with the new requirements by June 1, the statutory deadline and first day of hurricane season.

However, it’s important to remember that centers can be considered in compliance either by having a permanent generator installed or by submitting a specific plan showing how they will ensure that residents will remain cool and safe if the power goes out. These new protocols are making Florida’s long-term care centers better prepared than ever before, and they are receiving outstanding cooperation from federal, state and local authorities.

The 2017 season carried some challenging lessons, and we have learned them well. As a result, we are more prepared than ever to keep our residents safe.

We know there’s no such thing as being overprepared, and we will do everything we can in the 2018 hurricane season to make sure our residents’ safety remains the top priority of FHCA members across Florida.


Emmett Reed is executive director of the Florida Health Care Association.


Rick Scott appoints new member to Florida Citrus Commission

A vacancy on the nine-member governing board of the Florida Department of Citrus has been filled.

Gov. Rick Scott announced Thursday afternoon the appointment of Pat Schirard to the Florida Citrus Commission.

Schirard, 57, of Vero Beach, is the president of GEM Indian River Select, a premium juice company that prides itself on solely using Florida citrus for production. A fourth-generation Floridian according to Indian River Select, he is also a citrus grower in Lake, Brevard, Polk and Indian River counties. His term begins Thursday and ends May 31, 2019.

According to the commission’s website, the terms of three other members, Carlos Martinez, Vernon “V.C.” Hollingsworth III, and Aedan J. Dowling, will expire at the end of this month.

The Citrus Commission is the rulemaking authority for the Florida Department of Citrus, a state agency charged with marketing, research and regulation of the Florida citrus industry. According to FDOC, the citrus industry employs 45,000 Floridians and contributes an estimated $8.6 billion to the state’s economy annually. 

Schirard will assume his new post at a time when citrus growers are trying to bounce back from devastation caused by Hurricane Irma last year. The latest forecast from the United States Department of Agriculture predicts Florida will produce 44.95 million boxes of oranges in the current growing season —  a drop of more than 9 million boxes since October 2017, when predictions were made without factoring in the damage inflicted by Hurricane Irma.

The state’s citrus industry also has been hit by the citrus greening epidemic. The so-far incurable disease attacks the fruit, causing it to turn green and bitter, and eventually killing the tree. The epidemic has waned citrus production in recent decades, though farmers were on track to rebound — until Irma.

Nursing home attorneys no-show at contempt hearing

Attorneys for a Broward County nursing home didn’t show up for a hearing into its contempt motion against the Agency for Health Care Administration over alleged public records violations.

Scheduling error, said Geoffrey Smith, of the Smith & Associates law firm in Tallahassee, because of a “misunderstanding related to the scheduling of hearings in several ongoing related matters.”

”We continue to look forward to the production of the public record information on the deaths that occurred in Florida during the aftermath of Hurricane Irma,” he said.

Tallahassee Circuit Judge Terry Lewis said he likely couldn’t have resolved the case within the hour allotted anyway, because he’d realized the parties would need to present evidence rather than merely argue points of law.

He asked Michael Williams, an assistant general counsel to the agency, who did attend the scheduled hearing, to get in touch with the other side to reschedule.

“It seems like there’s really a factual dispute,” Lewis said.

“I would suggest to the plaintiffs, if they were here, that they go ahead and pay whatever fee and let you get going,” he added. “And I’ll reserve jurisdiction on whether that’s a reasonable time and that’s a reasonable fee.

“If you’ll relay that, we’ll just let them reset this hearing for a little longer.”

Williams declined to comment following the hearing.

The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills was the site of patient deaths as Hurricane Irma knocked out its power supply, and with it, the air conditioning. Twelve patients died, and the state later went after the facility’s license.

In the subsequent court battle, the nursing home filed a public records request for death certificates filed with the state between Sept. 9 and Sept. 16, during Irma and shortly afterward.

In part, the facility objects to the state’s demand for nearly $6,000 before it produces the data.

Bill Nelson, Philip Levine rip federal response to Puerto Rico

Speaking at the 9th Annual Puerto Rico Summit in Orlando Friday, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson ripped the federal response to Puerto Rico’s devastation by hurricanes last fall.

Nelson called for statehood for Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló also ripped Washington, but his ire was focused on Congress for including a new excise tax on Puerto Rican businesses in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 passed in December.

All three drew at least partial standing ovations, though the crowd was mixed, with Democrats, Republicans and others, including a scattering of elected officials from Central Florida, South Florida and Puerto Rico.

Earlier in the day, Florida Gov. Rick Scott also spoke to the gathering of more than 300 about all that his administration has done to assist Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans who fled the devastation to Florida. He too, received an ovation. And Rossello thanked Scott, along with Nelson, Levine, and U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando, who did not attend, for their help for the struggling island territory since Hurricanes Irma and Maria laid waste and left problems that persist today.

Yet in their afternoon remarks, Levine and Nelson took off gloves, and most of the crowd loved it.

Levine personally brought one of the first planes into Puerto Rico with relief supplies shortly after the Sept. 20 Hurricane Maria disaster, arriving with the goods ahead of anything the Federal Emergency Management Agency offered. The group gave Levine an award for that, and also gave an award to Scott.

“The way the administration handled that relief effort was embarrassing to our nation and the world, what they did to Puerto Rico,” Levine said. “And I don’t care if that’s politically incorrect, I’m going to call it like it is.”

Levine said the same kind of White House response would have made the Normandy invasion or the Berlin Airdrop utter disasters.

“What our country could have done for Puerto Rico, it didn’t do. Instead of throwing paper towels, what they should have done is say I want the top 25 CEOs of the top companies in America, put them on a plane, and say we will show the world what America can do!” Levine said, bringing a rousing ovation.

Nelson was more measured in his criticism of the federal response, but also far more detailed, talking about his numerous trips to Puerto Rico, including two weeks ago, when he saw small cities that still lacked power to up to 30 percent of their residents, and where clean water still is unavailable to many.

He spoke of recent decisions by the administration of President Donald Trump to end FEMA assistance, and, as of Friday, to bring home the Army Corps of Engineers’ restoration efforts. He spoke of contracts being mismanaged, and “basic necessities” such as tarps and hot meals still not available to all.

“This is completely unacceptable. Can you imagine anybody on the mainland in Texas and in Florida almost nine months after the hurricane still without electricity?” Nelson said.

“I have always supported self-determination for all U.S. citizens. Now with all the poor treatment by this administration it seems to me that statehood is the answer,” Nelson said.

“We should never accept incompetence andgross negligence as the new normal,” Nelson said. “So we have to fight.”

Florida CAT Fund healthy, but council contemplates doomsday scenario

The Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund has reserves enough to easily cover its Hurricane Irma liabilities — as much as $300 million in excess of its $17 billion statutory liability limit.

But what happens if a major storm — or a swarm of them — wipes out the fund’s assets? It might have to demand emergency assessments of a broad array of policyholders.

Council staff stressed during an advisory council meeting Thursday that they were talking really-bad-case scenarios. But it’s not like it hasn’t happened before, chief operating officer Anne Bert said.

“We certainly faced that in 2006, because we wiped out the CAT Fund in ’04 and ’05,” she said.

“It’s not the worst. The worst would be if we didn’t have any pre-event bonds,” Bert said. Still, “This one’s pretty bad.”

The fund floats those “pre-event” bonds as contingency against disasters.

A wipe-out would leave it with $2.75 billion in liquid assets. It likely could float another $8.2 billion in bonds at that point, but the fund would need to borrow an additional $6 billion-plus to rebuild its reserves.

Those emergency assessments would pay debt service on such “post-event” bonds, Bert said.

“None of this is fee money. We have to pay it back. And we will turn to the policyholders of the state of Florida to help us pay it back,” Bert said.

As for a bond issue, “Hopefully, the market would allow us to do that,” she said.

She referred to the capital market — infusions from private reinsurance companies or Wall Street actors looking for places to park cash.

“Interest rates are low right now. There are people looking for yield,” Bert said. “They just are.”

Back to the present: The fund holds $14 billion in cash, and is looking into selling $1 billion in risk to the capital markets. It controls $2.2 billion in pre-event bonds.

“We’re in great shape,” Bert said.

According to a Raymond James analysis, the three major rating agencies have given the fund their top rankings not least on the strength of its $46.8 billion premium base. The fund could raise $2.8 billion in assessments to cover storm damage during a single contract year.

The industry-wide loss from Irma has been estimated at more than $8 billion. The fund’s share exceeds $2 billion, nearly $400 million of which it has paid thus far. Its client insurers typically prefer to be paid in installments, according to fund staff.

Citrus agency counts on bigger crop next year

The Florida Department of Citrus is banking on storm-battered and disease-hardened growers being able to pick more fruit from their trees next growing season.

As it starts to patch together a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the department is projecting that revenues will increase by just over $400,000 through upticks in orange, grapefruit and specialty-fruit production, according to numbers released by the agency.

However, a continued decline in the forecast for the ongoing growing season forced the Bartow-based department on Wednesday to once again squeeze its current operating budget.

This time the Citrus Commission, which oversees the department, had to cut $137,866 from the just-over $17 million operating budget.

Department officials said they were able to make the cuts by shifting $122,352 from reserves, with the remainder from general revenue service-charge changes and medical research.

The Department of Citrus is funded through a “box” tax on citrus. Revenues have dropped as citrus production has declined in recent years because of citrus-greening disease and destruction from September’s Hurricane Irma.

In January, the commission shifted more than $70,000 out of administration, scientific-research and global-marketing budgets to cover an anticipated drop in revenue. A month earlier, the hole created by declining crops required the commission to shift $556,147 from reserves to the operating budget.

Irma, which made landfall in the Keys and Collier County before barreling up the state, caused major damage to the citrus industry in regions such as Southwest Florida. A federal relief package will provide $340 million to the state in the form of a block grant to help citrus farmers rebuild. Farmers are expected to be able to start applying for money through the “2017 Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program” by July 16.

A preliminary budget for the department’s next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, will be based on projections that growers will be able to fill 60 million 90-pound boxes of oranges, 5 million similar-sized boxes of grapefruit and 880,000 boxes of specialty fruits, which include tangerines and tangelos. The preliminary budget will be formally introduced at a June 20 meeting.

The numbers would remain historic lows for the state’s signature industry, but if reached would represent a 34.8 percent increase in oranges from the current season, a 26.6 percent increase in grapefruit and 17.3 percent increase in specialty fruits.

The industry is currently on pace to record its lowest yield since the 1937-1938 season, when an overall total of 40.87 million boxes were filled.

Filling a projected 65.88 million boxes in the next season would put the state on par with the with the 1942-1943 season, when growers filled 36.5 million boxes of oranges, 27.3 million boxes of grapefruit, and 4.9 million boxes of specialty fruits.

The commission receives revenue by charging 7 cents on each 90-pound box of processed oranges, grapefruit and specialty fruits.

No discussion was made of the box taxes on Wednesday, with officials noting the rates will be addressed in October, after the first forecast of next season by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Rick Scott earmarks federal Hurricane Irma block grant for housing, infrastructure

Florida wants to spend $616 million in post-Irma federal emergency money to repair damaged homes, build new affordable housing, and to help businesses that suffered damage in the storm.

The money would come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through a disaster-recovery community block grant. Gov. Rick Scott submitted his plan for the money to federal officials on Wednesday.

“Even before Hurricane Irma made landfall, we began working with the federal government to express the diverse needs our state would face following a storm of this magnitude and how best to address those needs,” Scott said in a written statement.

“Since the storm, we have worked tirelessly alongside community and business leaders to build stronger communities that are better prepared for future disasters. I’m glad that DEO submitted this plan to help families in our state,” Scott said.

The Department of Economic Opportunity worked with local officials in the hardest-hit areas to develop the plan, the governor’s office said.

The program is designed to kick in after other federal assistance, including FEMA and Small Business Administration grants, and private insurance are exhausted.

HUD requires the state to direct 80 percent of the money to the areas that suffered the most damage — Brevard, Broward, Collier, Duval, Lee, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Orange, Polk and Volusia counties, and ZIP codes 32136, 32091, 32068 and 34266.

“We are thankful to these communities for their commitment and partnership to determine the best way to use this funding to make a difference across the state,” DEO director Cissy Proctor said. “We are committed to helping Floridians recover, particularly families who do not have the resources to rebound as quickly after a disaster.”

HUD has 45 days to evaluate the state’s plan, which includes the purchase of land for affordable housing.

The state hopes to use some of the money for economic and infrastructure projects, especially in the Florida Keys, and to assist people who moved to Florida from Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.

The feds have allocated $117 million under the CDBG-DR program to help Florida cope with damage from hurricanes Hermine and Matthew.

Nursing home records dispute ratchets up

In the latest twist in months of legal battling after Hurricane Irma, an embattled Broward County nursing home has accused the Florida Department of Health of not properly complying with a judge’s order to turn over public records.

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis is scheduled Monday to hold a hearing on arguments by attorneys for The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills that the department should be held in contempt in the records dispute, according to an online docket and court records.

The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills has faced months of scrutiny and a state move to revoke its license after residents died following Hurricane Irma. The Sept. 10 storm knocked out the nursing home’s air-conditioning system, creating sweltering conditions that led to the evacuation of residents on Sept. 13. Authorities have attributed 12 deaths to the problems at the nursing home.

The nursing home and the state have been locked in a legal battle about the license revocation and other issues, and The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills filed a public-records lawsuit Jan. 31, alleging that the department had improperly refused to provide copies of death certificates for people across the state from Sept. 9 through Sept. 16 – a week-long period that included Hurricane Irma and its immediate aftermath.

Court documents have not spelled out why the nursing home wants the death certificates, but Lewis last month said the death certificates are public records and should be provided by the state.

“The records requested by petitioner (the nursing home) are subject to Florida’s Public Record Act … and there is no applicable statutory exemption to permit their withholding from release,” Lewis wrote.

But in a document filed last week, attorneys for The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills alleged that the Department of Health had not properly complied with Lewis’ order.

“Despite a final judgment ordering DOH to comply with Hollywood Hills’ public records request, DOH is delaying, attempting to charge illegal fees and otherwise intentionally refusing to comply with this court’s mandate,” the document said. “As such, this court should find DOH in contempt and order the records be produced immediately.”

In part, the nursing home objected to a May 7 invoice from the department for $5,928, including $5,907 for “review & redaction” of the records. The nursing home contends that there is not a need to review and redact information from the death certificates, a process that the invoice indicates would require 492.25 hours.

The court docket Tuesday morning did not include a response from the department. But in objecting to the original public-records request, the department contended that the large request fell under part of state law dealing with “vital records or data.”

It said the nursing home’s request didn’t meet legal standards for releasing such information.

“Whereas anyone may request and receive a redacted death certificate (under part of state law), only certain people and entities may receive the type of general data that would allow research to be conducted,” the department argued in a March motion to dismiss the case.

“Such data … is far more broad than simply one or two specifically requested death certificates. The only possible purpose for this subsection (of law) is to regulate who may obtain large swaths of data derived from death certificates and other such records.”

The motion said the nursing home is “not the type of entity which may receive this data.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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