Hurricane Irma – Florida Politics

#2 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Bob Buckhorn

The last time anyone asked, Tampanians overwhelmingly said they approve of the job Bob Buckhorn has done as Mayor of Tampa. Back in November, some three-quarters of 350 Tampa residents surveyed said they approve of his performance, and most said the city is headed in the right direction — that was before Raybor was a thing.

In his more than seven years as mayor, Buckhorn has been a vocal proponent of downtown Tampa’s transformation from a gritty spot with little activity to a vibrant hub with a true sense of place. The same goes for recently-reimagined neighborhoods like Ybor City and Tampa Heights.

“Tampa’s Mayor gets stuff done,” said Southern Strategy Group’s Seth McKeel. “He’ll leave Tampa way better than he found it and has ensured a significant and long-lasting legacy.”

Buckhorn’s office likely selected Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park for his final State of the City address in May for more than its pretty backdrop. The newly revamped park, which sits on the Hillsborough River’s long-ignored western bank, is emblematic of the progress the city has seen under Buckhorn’s direction.

Buckhorn has been getting plenty of time on camera as part of Hillsborough County leaders’ efforts to build a stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays in Ybor City.

But construction cranes, food halls, a lovely riverfront and the possibility of pro baseball in Tampa proper only tell part of the story. In the past year, Buckhorn was front-and-center as national news outlets depicted a region that sat squarely in the crosshairs of Hurricane Irma. Months later, he was the face of the effort to find the Seminole Heights killer, which ultimately led to the suspect’s arrest in December.

While Buckhorn’s been an effective mayor, he is not without his foils. Pre-emption policies Republican lawmakers have passed at the state level have blocked Buckhorn and other Democratic Florida mayors from enacting local regulations on a range of matters, including guns and raising the minimum wage. And while Buckhorn has long been a vocal advocate of overhauling Tampa’s sorely-lacking transit infrastructure, his calls for boosting gridlock-easing public transportation are often met with little enthusiasm at the county and state level.

It’s unclear what Buckhorn will be up to a year from now. He leaves office in spring of 2019. It’s been over a year since he turned down a run for governor, but he appears to be up for serving as lieutenant governor under the right person. He could also do what many former electeds do: transition back into private life as a well-paid consultant, at least for the time being.

In the meantime, he probably won’t be slowing down anytime soon.

Despite his term ending next year and an uncertain future after that, Buckhorn climbed to the No. 2 spot from his third-place ranking in 2017.

Joe Henderson‘s take: “He is term-limited as Tampa’s mayor next year, but he likes the action too much to stay on the sideline.”

For a complete explanation of how this list was created and who made up the panel that amassed it, please read here.

Irma insurance losses close to $10 billion

Insurance loss estimates from Hurricane Irma have hit $9.7 billion, up by more than $1 billion since April, according to the latest numbers posted by the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.

Insurers also advised the state agency that the number of claims had reached 987,767 from the massive and deadly September storm. The was up more than 54,000 from when numbers were previously updated in April.

Officials said they expected claims to be made for more than a year after the storm, as property owners are able to get complete assessments of the damages.

Erin VanSickle, deputy chief of staff in the Office of Insurance Regulation, said to the agency’s knowledge, no insurer has indicated difficulty in paying claims.

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.

Insurance companies had closed 91.5 percent of residential claims but just 68.4 percent of commercial-property claims, according to the numbers, which were as of Tuesday.

Of the 823,733 residential claims filed, 491,273 had been settled with some payment and 262,809 resulted in no money changing hands. Insurance officials have noted the amount of damages often fail to reach policyholders’ hurricane deductibles.

On the commercial side, nearly 40 percent of the 58,544 claims failed to result in insurance payments, while nearly 30 percent had seen money paid.

Across the state, the top counties for damage claims were Miami-Dade with 125,636, Collier with 88,934, Broward with 80,958 and Lee with 79,804.

Nearly 20 percent of the claims in Miami-Dade County had yet to be closed, while 33 percent had been closed without any payments.

Broward County had the next highest percentage of open claims, at nearly 15 percent.

Collier was at 89.5 percent closed, Orange County was at 93 percent, and Duval County stood at nearly 95 percent.

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

Overall, 16 counties each had more than 20,000 insurance claims.

Orange County had seen 73,982 claims filed and Duval, which suffered major flooding from the St. Johns River, had 36,830 claims.

Monroe County, which comprises the Florida Keys, had seen 30,767 claims, of which 57 percent required insurance payments and just over 10 percent of the claims remained open.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Hurricane Irma produced a litigation wave at Citizens Insurance, committee told

Hurricane Irma-related lawsuits surged at Citizens Property Insurance Corp. early this year, representing a nearly 50 percent increase in the company’s litigation load compared to the same period in 2017.

More than 90 percent of those lawsuits originated in South Florida.

The state’s insurer of last resort fielded 4,287 legal claims in January through April, the vast majority involving residential policies. Irma claims represented 60 percent of that litigation, according to a report delivered to Citizens’ claims committee during a telephone conference call Wednesday.

The Category 4 storm hit the Florida Keys in September 2017 and then ran up the state’s spine. It had generated 924,439 insurance claims in all as of April 6, of which 91 percent have been resolved, according to the state Office of Insurance Regulation. The monetary value exceeded $8.6 billion,

In nearly half of the lawsuits, policyholders hadn’t disputed Citizens’ adjustment decisions before filing, even though the company encourages them to update claims based on emerging information about the scope of their damage.

“These insured are just giving over the option and opportunity to further adjust the claim with us and just going straight to sue,” Elaina Paskalakis, Citizens’ vice president for claim litigation, told the committee.

Even so, more than half of the claims arrived within six months of a reported loss, a 9 percent increase compared to pre-Irma litigation.

“This is trending up despite the fact that insureds who filed suit and had representation at first notice of loss has decreased by almost 22 percent (currently 61 percent as compared to 83 percent pre-Irma) as many insureds reported their own losses,” the report says.

Vendors holding assignment of benefits agreements filed 9 percent of the lawsuits. Citizens — along with other insurers, business more broadly, and officials in the insurance office — blame abusive AOB practices for inflating monetary demands and litigation.

Judge: Nursing home to pay ‘reasonable fee’ for records

The state can’t charge the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills anywhere close to $30,000 to produce the records of deaths occurring statewide during and immediately following Hurricane Irma, a judge said Tuesday.

The Department of Health wanted the Broward County nursing home, where 12 people died because of sweltering conditions when the power failed, to pay $5 each for paper records of the nearly 6,000 deaths that occurred across the state at the same time.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis in Tallahassee told an attorney representing the state to produce electronic copies instead, and to charge only reasonable costs of preserving the records on a computer disk or flash drive.

“They don’t even want paper copies,” Lewis told assistant general counsel Michael Williams.

Williams argued that state law required extensive redactions of the records to shield the causes of death. However, Timothy Elliott, of Smith & Associates’ Tallahassee office, representing the nursing home, said officials routinely produce such redacted records at minimal cost.

In light of that, the state’s demand is “inherently unreasonable,” Elliott said. “There has to be a reasonable fee.”

Lewis agreed: “That would make it silly to me, and illogical, to require your department to spend all that time, and have them pay all that money, to redact something that’s not necessary and that the public can get otherwise,” he said.

“If all they want is take that information and put it on a disc, that shouldn’t take that much,” Lewis added.

Lewis also ruled that the nursing home is entitled to recover its costs in litigating its records demand against the state. He told the parties to confer on language summing up his ruling from the bench and return it for review.

The state went after the home’s license following the tragedy, but staff responded that they’d tried phoning Gov. Rick Scott and received no answer. Meanwhile, the Legislature passed a law requiring homes to acquire electric generators, but many remain out of compliance.

Lewis ordered the agency to turn over the records in April, provoking the fresh litigation over its fee demand. Earlier court documents had placed the amount at around $6,000, but the larger figure emerged during Tuesday’s hearing.

The nursing home hopes to establish that its staff acted reasonably in declining to evacuate its residents. The law firm’s Geoffrey Smith said research suggests evacuating frail elderly ahead of a natural disaster can cause more deaths than sheltering in place.

“It’s important to place the whole thing in some perspective,” Smith said. “When we get away from the sensationalism, most people would see it was pretty reasonable to do what they did.”

USDA predictions end 30 million boxes short of pre-Irma orange forecasts

While unchanged from May, the latest and last forecast of the 2017-2018 orange growing season is a brutal reminder of Hurricane Irma’s devastation.

On Tuesday, the United States Department of Agriculture forecast Florida would produce 44.95 million boxes of oranges in total. That’s a continuation from May forecasts, which saw a slight dip from April.

But before Hurricane Irma, private estimates claimed Florida growers were on track to produce roughly 75 million boxes — or more than 30 million boxes than what’s currently projected by the USDA. Florida growers produced close to 69 million boxes of oranges during last year’s season after harvesting 81.7 million boxes during the 2015-2016 season. Each box weighs 90 pounds.

“This brings a very difficult citrus season to a close,” said Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus. “We look forward to a quiet, resilient season in the fall.”

Grapefruit forecasts dropped to 3.88 million boxes — down 2 percent from May’s prediction. The USDA estimates tangerines and tangelos should be down 54 percent in total from last year’s growing season if forecasts hold steady.

When Irma swept through the state last year, authorities described the storm’s path as one that could not have been “more lethal” to Florida citrus. In October, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimated the citrus industry suffered a $760 million blow.

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 bounce back — until Irma.

Currently, Florida farmers await remedy at the federal level. Congressionally authorized funding spawned the creation of the USDA’s 2017 Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program (WHIP), which seeks to distribute $2.36 billion worth of federal funding to “agricultural producers to offset losses from hurricanes and wildfires during 2017,” according to the USDA.

The program will cover losses of crops, trees, bushes and vines for producers. Per the Florida Citrus Commission, Irma “uprooted trees and left many groves sitting in standing water for up to three weeks, potentially damaging the root systems and impacting future seasons’ growth.”

In discussing the final forecast of the season, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam pointed to federal aid as the silver lining of Irma’s devastation.

“While today’s final citrus crop forecast brings this horrible season to a close, it’s important to remember that the industry is still recovering from Hurricane Irma’s unprecedented damage last year,” Putnam said. “Thanks to the collaborative efforts of the United States Department of Agriculture, Florida’s agriculture industry and our elected leaders, much-needed disaster assistance is on the way to help Florida’s growers.”

Additionally, the WHIP will distribute individual payments to farmers worth up to $125,000. But, per the USDA, “Producers who derived 75 percent of their income in tax years 2013, 2014 and 2015 will be subject to a $900,000 payment limitation.”

As well, producers who did not insure crops will receive 65 percent of their expected crop value if they are eligible for WHIP funding. Meanwhile, insured producers could receive up to 95 percent of their expected crop value.

Accompanying WHIP aid for Florida farmers is a $340 million block grant announced by USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue in May. That money will be used to cover the buying and replanting of trees, grove rehabilitation, and repairs to irrigation systems.

Florida leaders have pressured the USDA to disperse the WHIP funding sooner than later. The USDA expects to launch a sign-up period for the program no later than July 16.

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.

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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.

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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.

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