Hurricane Irma Archives - Page 4 of 44 - Florida Politics

Feds announce $340M grant for Florida citrus

A bit more money is on the way for Florida citrus growers affected by Hurricane Irma.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced on Monday that his agency will provide a $340 million block grant to the state to cater to Irma-affected farmers during the 2018-2020 crop year — that’s in addition to the $2.36 billion worth of farm disaster funding authorized by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in February.

According to USDA, the money from the grant will cover the buying and replanting of trees, grove rehabilitation, and repairs to irrigation systems.

“The Florida citrus industry was likely hit the hardest, and with such a high-value crop, they face a steeper financial burden and as a whole, have less coverage through our traditional insurance options,” Perdue said in a prepared statement.

Perdue said he was directed by President Trump to work “directly with Governor [Rick] Scott and [Agriculture] Commissioner [Adam] Putnam in Florida to put a process in place that will ensure the Florida citrus industry maintains its infrastructure and can continue to be the signature crop for the state.”

“Since Hurricane Irma hit our state, I have been fighting for Florida’s citrus growers to get the relief they need to rebuild their livelihoods, including taking immediate steps to provide relief from the state,” Scott said.

Added Putnam: “While no amount of relief can make the farmers who suffered damages from Hurricane Irma whole, this much-needed disaster relief will help Florida agriculture get back on its feet.”

The $2.36 billion, separate from the block grant, will be distributed by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency through the 2017 Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program.

Earlier in April, Florida leadership — Scott, Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, and Putnam — increased the pressure on the USDA to disperse the funds, the News Service of Florida reported.  

Since then, the USDA’s offered a few details and a rough timeline.

Per the agency, here’s what we know: “Eligibility will be limited to producers in counties that experienced hurricanes or wildfires designated as presidentially-declared disasters in 2017; Compensation determined by a producer’s individual losses rather than an average of losses for a particular area (where data is available); Producers who purchased higher levels of risk protection, such as crop insurance and noninsured crop disaster assistance program, will receive higher payments; Advance payments up to 50 percent; and a requirement that payment recipients obtain future risk protection.”

A sign-up period to determine eligibility will begin no later than July 16.

Report raises questions about job growth

Gov. Rick Scott has tied his political fortunes to job creation.

Although skeptics can argue about how much influence a Governor may exert over Florida’s economy, Scott has been unabashed in taking credit for job growth since he was sworn into office in January 2011.

In his monthly jobs report last week, Scott cited more than 1.5 million jobs created in Florida since December 2010, including 167,000 private-sector jobs in the 12 months ending in March.

But as Scott prepares to formally qualify for the U.S. Senate race next week, a new federal report cast Florida in an unusual role, as the state with the most net job losses, at least for the third quarter of 2017.

“R’oh-r’oh,” a Democratic consultant tweeted. “This is not good news for @ScottforFlorida.”

But it turns out that predictions of an end to Florida’s job-growth surge may be premature.

Economists say the blip in Florida’s job growth is attributable to the impact of Hurricane Irma, although the fact that Florida and 26 other states showed net job losses in the third quarter of 2017 may also be a sign of an economy reaching full employment that would bring a natural slowdown in job growth.

The quarterly report on “business development dynamics” by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that for the first time since 2010, more jobs were lost in the national economy in the third quarter of 2017 than the number of jobs created.

From June 2017 through September 2017, the U.S. had 7.3 million gross job gains compared to a loss of 7.4 million gross jobs, or a net difference of about 140,000 fewer jobs, according to the federal data.

Florida led all states in the number of net job losses at about 134,000 in the quarter, with 417,000 gross jobs gained and 551,000 lost in the three-month period.

But Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida, said he did not see anything particularly alarming about Florida’s labor market in the report, which was issued Wednesday, given what happened to the state during that period.

Hurricane Irma, a Category 4 storm, struck the Florida Keys on Sept. 10, moving northward and impacting most of the state.

“You see something transpire that looks a little bit at first glance potentially troubling, but when you put some context around it, the reason for this third-quarter outcome is really just attributable to the outcome of Irma,” Snaith said about the new federal report.

“It was a double whammy because it hit in terms of both job gains and job losses in way that led itself to reverse the path that (Florida) had been on,” Snaith said.

The results of the quarterly report were foreshadowed by monthly jobs reports issued by the U.S. Department of Labor last fall. The reports showed a significant drop in Florida’s non-farm employment in September.

The adjusted figures showed those jobs dropped by about 167,000 to 8.4 million jobs in September, compared to August. But they climbed back another 180,000 jobs in October to a total of more than 8.6 million non-farm employment, according to the data.

“I think we’ll return to the trend where job gains are exceeding job losses,” Snaith said about the next federal quarterly report on business development dynamics.

But Snaith also said he expects the job-growth margin “to narrow somewhat” going forward, given that Florida is “in a pretty tight labor market now, maybe not at full employment but getting awful close.”

Florida’s unemployment rate has been at 3.9 percent since September, below the national average of 4.1 percent. State economists who advise the governor, lawmakers and other state officials consider an unemployment rate in the range of 4 percent to represent “full employment” in the state economy.

“The Florida economy is quite strong, and the labor market continues to do well,” Snaith said. “I don’t think there is anything to be alarmed about in terms of Florida’s labor market in this report.”

Regulators look at utility hurricane plans

After Hurricane Irma temporarily knocked out electricity for millions of Floridians in September, state regulators next week will hold a two-day workshop to look at utility preparedness and storm-response plans.

The Florida Public Service Commission has scheduled the workshop Wednesday and Thursday in Tallahassee.

An agenda indicates the commission will receive presentations from major private utilities and representatives of municipal utilities and electric cooperatives.

“The purpose of this workshop is to review electric utilities’ storm preparedness plans and activities and restoration of service actions after a named storm in order to explore the potential to further minimize infrastructure damage, resulting outages and recovery times to customers in the future,” a notice of the workshop said.

Hurricane Irma caused widespread outages after it made landfall in Monroe and Collier counties and swept north through the state.

The Public Service Commission began a process in October of gathering information and comments about storm issues.

Feds to provide grants to schools enrolling hurricane evacuees

The U.S. Department of Education will move forward with grants to schools in Florida and other states that took in children evacuees from Hurricanes Irma and Maria and then struggled with unexpected costs, U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy‘s office announced Tuesday.

Under legislation Congress pushed through and approved in February, with Murphy’s backing, the department will be making grants of $8,500 for each enrolled student who was displaced by the hurricanes that tore through Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands last September. The grants are up to $10,000 per student for students with disabilities.

According to a release from Murphy’s office, school officials will be able to use the money to pay and hire teachers, purchase classroom supplies, lease additional classroom space, mentor students, and provide transportation services.

“Schools and communities in central Florida have welcomed displaced students from the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands with grace and generosity, and this federal funding will give them the financial support they need to offer a high-quality education to both new and existing students,” Murphy stated in the release. “I’m proud I was able to lead the bipartisan effort in Congress to deliver this much-needed support to our local schools. I will keep fighting to help displaced families and the communities that have embraced them.”

The Florida Department of Education will collect data from the state’s school districts; apply for funding from the U.S. Department of Education; and then distribute the federal funding it receives to the school districts based on their documented need.

Florida’s public schools reported enrolling at least 12,000 displaced students.

Report: Florida shortchanged on Hurricane Irma unemployment assistance

A new report from the National Employment Law Project Action Fund charges that Florida’s workers got shortchanged by state and federal efforts to provide disaster unemployment assistance following Hurricane Irma last fall.

The report alleges Floridians, under Gov. Rick Scott‘s guidance, received far less from the federal Disaster Unemployment Assistance program than under any Florida governor who has overseen hurricane recovery for the past 30 years.

The federal Disaster Unemployment Assistance provides cash aid to both workers and small business owners when their paychecks are interrupted due to unemployment after a disaster.

The new report charges that the Scott administration did little to help Floridians find or access the program and contends that led to Florida having the least amount of DUA claims, approved claims, and money compared with relief programs offered for any major hurricane in decades.

Scott had received praise and improved public opinion poll job performance ratings following the state’s response to Irma. But the group behind the report charged that Scott’s high marks were unearned, at least considering how he dealt with helping Floridians access the disaster money.

Tiffany Vause, director of communications for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, responded on behalf of the administration, accusing the group of not getting its facts straight, using fuzzy math, and pushing a false narrative.

“This report is invalid and filled with inaccurate generalizations and conclusions. The NELP report uses statements of opinions as fact, is misleading and does not paint an accurate picture of disaster recovery in Florida,” she said in a written response. “It is also irresponsible for NELP to compare Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey – two very different storms with vastly different impacts.

Specifically, she said the group cites a federal report that summarizes claims filed to February, but that the end date for applications was March 17, so the group “left out critical information regarding the number of DUA claimants and those who received benefits.”

NELP cites a federal report that summarizes claims filed since February but the end date to claim disaster unemployment assistance in Florida was March 17, 2018, therefore NELP left out critical information regarding the number of DUA claimants and those who received benefits.

She also insisted that the Department of Economic Opportunity “went above and beyond to ensure that families impacted by Hurricane Irma were treated fairly and got the assistance that they deserved. This includes extending the deadline for DUA twice while aggressively advertising this assistance and we also worked directly with legal aid offices during the storm.”

While Vause described a Florida that recovered quickly, NELP Action portrayed one where people had a hard time getting aid.

“Governor Rick Scott may be touring the state touting his record after Irma, but for Floridians who were forced out of work by the hurricane and needed unemployment assistance, Governor Scott was missing in action,” Paul Sonn, director of NELP Action, stated in a news release that went out with the report Wednesday. “He helped fewer workers and small business owners get jobless aid after the hurricane than any Florida governor in 30 years.”

The fund advocates progressive economic policies, particularly on wages and benefits.

Only 2,434 workers and small business owners received any DUA payments in the six months after Irma. That’s a mere 35 percent of the people who managed to apply for DUA and were found eligible by the Scott administration, the report states. It is the lowest share of eligible claimants receiving DUA in the last 30 years.

“I saw firsthand how the Scott Administration botched relief for people who’d lost their livelihoods because of Irma,” Jennifer Hill, a Miami-based legal advocate, stated in the release. “Hurricane victims couldn’t find out how to apply for unemployment insurance online, and backup phone lines were either shut down or transferred callers out of state to people who couldn’t help them. There’s no question that the Scott administration failed tens of thousands of working Floridians.”

According to the report, 7,149 Floridians applied for the disaster unemployment assistance following Hurricane Irma, 6,953 were deemed eligible, and only 2,434 received the aid, or 35 percent. Recipients averaged $138 per week in benefits.

That compares to a far more robust response in Texas following Hurricane Harvey last year, acceding to the NELP Action report. There, 26,326 people applied, 19,650 were deemed eligible, and 8,492 received benefits, 43 percent, averaging $245 apiece per week.

Floridians’ disaster unemployment program benefits for Irma relief also were less robust than what Florida experienced following Hurricanes Andrew in 2002, and Frances, Charley, Ivan, and Jeanne in 2004, and Wilma in 2005, according to the report. Following each of those storms, more than half of the Floridians applied received benefits. Of those disasters, only Jeanne resulted in fewer Florida DUA Fund beneficiaries than Irma; while more than 3,000 Floridians received benefits following Ivan, more than 4,000 for Charley and Wilma, and more than 6,000 following Andrew and Frances.

“After Hurricane Irma, most Florida workers and small business owners were unable to access Disaster Unemployment Assistance. For weeks after Irma, the Scott Administration’s online claims system didn’t list DUA as an option for applying for assistance,” the report states. “And backup phone lines were frequently shut down, left callers on hold, or transferred calls to out-of-state agents who couldn’t file claims. The Scott Administration also failed to deliver on promises to fix the system, and they denied workers’ first weeks of benefits even when they said they wouldn’t.”

State increases Irma insurance loss estimate

Pointing to “human error,” the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation on Thursday increased its latest property-loss estimate from Hurricane Irma by more than $1.2 billion.

The new number is $8.6 billion from the September storm. When updating the number of claims reported by private insurance companies last Friday, the office had posted the estimated losses at $7.38 billion, a drop of more than $600 million from a February estimate.

Department spokeswoman Karen Kees, who called the number in the initial post a “human error,” noted that some information from private insurers had initially been placed in an incorrect column.

The state agency doesn’t release data by individual insurance companies, asserting protection of trade secrets.

Thursday’s update didn’t alter the overall statewide number of 924,439 claims that had been posted last Friday.

Insurance companies have closed 90.1 percent of residential claims but just 58.2 percent of commercial-property claims. Across the state, more than 20,000 claims had been filed in 15 different counties, topped by 120,921 in Miami-Dade, 77,434 in Collier, 77,039 in Broward, 73,314 in Lee and 71,572 in Orange.

Rick Scott urges quick action on agriculture aid

Gov. Rick Scott is asking U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to move quickly to get disaster-relief funding into the hands of Florida citrus growers, as it may be another three months before farmers can start to apply for the money.

In a letter Tuesday, Scott also asked Perdue to “customize federal aid for Florida citrus growers” to meet their needs.

“Many growers, both large and small, in Florida are awaiting details on the USDA’s (U.S. Department of Agriculture’s) plan to distribute funding,” Scott wrote.

On Friday, Perdue announced that a program to distribute $2.36 billion to farmers in Florida and other areas would be running by July 16. The agriculture aid is part of a $90 billion disaster-relief package signed by President Donald Trump in February. The package is directed towards victims of hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria and wildfires in California.

Florida’s agriculture industry suffered an estimated $2.5 billion in losses from Irma, with the citrus industry accounting for at least $761 million of those damages.

Perdue’s announcement Friday said distribution information will come “at a later date.” His office also noted, in part, that compensation will be determined by producers’ individual losses rather than by average losses in particular areas and that people receiving aid obtain future crop insurance.

Scott’s letter followed a request by Florida’s Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio to “avoid arbitrary limitations on disaster relief so we can get Florida’s farms, groves, and nurseries back to full operation” as soon as possible.

“USDA is right to incentivize personal responsibility through the purchase of crop insurance, however some crop policies work better than others,” Rubio wrote. “USDA should not punish citrus growers and others who understandably forgo purchasing higher levels of coverage of a poor insurance product.”

Irma insurance losses pegged at nearly $7.4B

New insurance-loss estimates from Hurricane Irma total nearly $7.38 billion, down more than $600 million from a February estimate as claims continue to be filed and closed, according to information posted by the state Office of Insurance Regulation.

The vast majority of claims involve residential property, with most in southern parts of the state.

Irma barreled up the peninsula after making landfall Sept. 10 in Cudjoe Key, less than 30 miles northeast of Key West, and making a second landfall in Collier County.

More than 56 percent of claims have been closed with some payment. Another 32 percent were closed without money changing hands, often because damage totals fell below hurricane deductibles.

The state doesn’t release figures for individual companies. State-backed Citizens Property Insurance this month noted that it was revisiting about one-third of its 66,761 claims from the storm. Reopened claims include properties with extensive damage, disputed claims and those in which contractors have not provided estimates for repairs.

Citizens had closed about 90 percent of its claims from the September storm and had made payments on about 54 percent of the closed claims. The company has incurred losses — paid plus reserves — of $845 million.

Citizens officials in September anticipated its claims reaching $1.2 billion. The overall number of claims statewide had reached 924,439 as of Friday, according to the new report.

Overall, insurance companies had closed 90.1 percent of residential claims but just 58.2 percent of commercial-property claims.

Across the state, more than 20,000 claims had been filed in 15 different counties, topped by 120,921 in Miami-Dade, 77,434 in Collier, 77,039 in Broward, 73,314 in Lee and 71,572 in Orange.

Forecast a glimmer of good news for Florida citrus

 For the second time in a week, Florida citrus growers got what could be considered good news for the struggling industry.

A forecast Tuesday from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed this season’s projected orange crop holding steady for the third consecutive month.

The estimate followed an announcement Friday by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue that anxiously awaited disaster-relief programs for farmers who suffered damages in Hurricane Irma will be in place by mid-July.

“After a season of crisis, our industry finds hope in a new bloom, a new crop, disaster relief on the horizon and the opportunity a new season brings,” Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, said in a prepared statement.

Despite the latest outlook, the citrus industry, which has been fighting deadly citrus-greening disease for a decade and then was ravaged by Irma in September, continues to be on a pace to produce the lowest citrus counts since World War II.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s estimate Tuesday said Florida will grow enough oranges in the current season to fill 45 million 90-pound boxes, a mark unchanged since the February forecast.

By comparison, the industry filled 68.7 million boxes of oranges in the 2016-2017 season, which itself was a five-decade low.

Meanwhile, estimated grapefruit production in the latest forecast fell 14 percent, from 4.65 million boxes in March to 4 million boxes in Tuesday’s report. The forecast number, if it holds, would be down 48.5 percent from the past season and 63 percent off the 10.8 million boxes filled in the 2015-2016 season.

Also, Florida’s production of specialty crops, tangerines and tangelos, is down 13 percent from the March outlook, in the latest federal numbers.

The industry had hoped to surpass 2016-2017 totals before Irma struck at the start of the current growing season, causing groves, particularly in Southwest Florida — where trees were knocked over or suffered long-term damage because of weeks of flooding that impacted root systems — to incur losses up to 70 percent, Shepp said.

In October, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs estimated hurricane damage to the citrus industry at $761 million. State officials later said damages have increased above the $1 billion mark.

Citrus officials have expressed frustration awaiting the release of $2.36 billion in federal disaster aid for farmers in Florida and other states affected by hurricanes and wildfires. The agriculture money was part of a $90 billion disaster-relief package signed by President Donald Trump on Feb. 9.

While Perdue announced Friday that programs for farmers to apply for the money will be set up by July 16, it remains unclear how claims can be filed or how money will be distributed.

Irma agriculture aid slated to start in summer

A program to distribute federal disaster aid to Florida farmers hit by Hurricane Irma will be set up within the next 100 days, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced Friday.

“USDA (the U.S. Department of Agriculture) is working as quickly as possible to develop procedures and a system by which affected producers can access disaster assistance,” Perdue said in a prepared statement.

The announcement added that “sign-up for the new program, authorized by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, will begin no later than July 16,” about 100 days from now.

It remains unknown how claims can be filed or how money will be distributed.

Members of Florida’s congressional delegation have lobbied Perdue to release the money as the state’s citrus growers express frustration in waiting for federal assistance after last September’s deadly hurricane.

In all, the federal program will provide $2.36 billion to farmers in Florida and other states affected by hurricanes and wildfires, part of a $90 billion disaster relief package signed by President Donald Trump on Feb. 9. Friday’s announcement came the same week Florida’s U.S. senators joined colleagues from Texas, Louisiana and California in sending a letter urging Perdue to hurry up in making the agriculture share of the money available.

“Florida’s farmers and citrus growers are a vital part of our state’s economy and we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to help them recover from last year’s storms,” Florida’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said in a statement Friday.

Perdue’s announcement said distribution information will come “at a later date.” Also, the announcement said farmers seeking aid should contact local U.S. Department of Agriculture service centers about establishing farm records.

The relief funding is directed at 2017 victims of hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria and a series of wildfires in California.

Florida’s agriculture industry took a $2.5 billion hit from Irma in September, according to an October estimate from the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The state’s struggling citrus industry accounted for $761 million of those losses, according to the initial estimate.

Citrus growers and state lawmakers have estimated that lingering damages have since topped the $1 billion mark.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam thanked Perdue for moving forward with the “long-awaited” disaster relief.

“We look forward to continuing to work with the USDA to ensure that this program is implemented quickly and in the best way possible to help Florida’s producers recover from the devastating hurricane,” Putnam said in a statement Friday

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