BY JIM TURNER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE – Thursday was the last day of the highly active, deadly and destructive 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, but Floridians will feel its impact for years.
Politicians are still scrambling to determine how much of the next state budget will be dedicated to covering losses that may or may not be paid by the federal government.
The massive hit from Hurricane Irma caused direct physical and emotional impacts in Florida, and ripples continue to come ashore as thousands of people flee Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Low on propane
Lawmakers are also looking at regulatory changes for nursing homes and debris-removal companies, as well as changes dealing with issues such as evacuation lanes, shelters and a potential state fuel reserve.
Gov. Rick Scott, who was a constantly visible face before and after Irma struck, said Monday while in Tampa that he’d like to boost the availability of propane for generators before the 2018 storm season.
“You always learn something,” Scott said. “Everybody had generators. This last time we started running low on propane. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again. But everyone did a good job. Highway safety, we kept the fuel going.”
Visit Florida spent $5 million to tell potential tourists that the state quickly reopened after Hurricane Irma, even as scars from the September storm remain etched across agricultural fields and the Florida Keys.
Meanwhile, 72 deaths in Florida are currently attributed to the Irma, according to reports supplied by county medical examiners to the state Division of Emergency Management.
The fatalities include 14 cases involving carbon monoxide, eight drownings, four electrocutions and 14 incidents involving blunt-force injuries. Deaths occurred statewide, with six in the Florida Keys, five in Duval County and even two in Leon County, which sustained relatively little damage from Irma compared to other parts of the state.
The numbers don’t include 14 deaths of residents of a Broward County nursing home – 12 were recently ruled homicides – that have caused Scott to push for new rules requiring nursing homes and assisted-living facilities to have emergency generators.
Members of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness will meet Monday and discuss potential storm-related recommendations for the 2018 legislative session, which starts in January.
Among the possibilities are legislation about housing, agriculture tax relief, hardening for emergency-operations centers and management of shelters.
“Obviously, there will be short-term things that need to be taken care of in the immediate, upcoming session,” committee Chairwoman Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami, said. “And then, as we saw back in (Hurricane) Andrew, or during the ‘04-’05 season, legislatures will deal with this issue for years to come.”
Hurricane Hermine in 2016 was Florida’s first direct hit from a hurricane in more than a decade. But Irma, which made landfall Sept. 10 in Monroe and Collier counties and traveled up the state, was far more destructive.
Mark Wool, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Tallahassee office, called 2017 the busiest for the Atlantic since 2005.
“We didn’t have any things working against tropical cyclone development like in recent years,” Wool said. “There was no El Nino in effect, which tends to suppress things. Didn’t see a lot of dust coming off Africa. We had a very warm ocean and the depth of the warm water was quite large. And all of those things tend to fuel development of a lot of storms.”
Emergency-management officials each year stress preparing for hurricanes. But Wool said the flatness of Florida requires additional vigilance by coastal communities against flooding, as the state is also experiencing a period of rising sea levels.
“Parts of South Beach are flooding now without any storms. Blue skies, tidal flooding, the king tides,” Wool said. “We’ve seen times in the historic record where we’ve had large fluctuations in sea level, and we’re certainly on the upswing.”
As of Nov. 13, more than 830,000 property owners across the state had filed claims for $5.88 billion in insured losses from Irma, which was one of four storms – Tropical Storm Emily, Irma, Hurricane Nate and Tropical Storm Philippe – that had a direct impact on the state during the six-month hurricane season that closed Thursday.
Emily in early August made landfall on Anna Maria Island and quickly was downgraded to a tropical depression. Nate brushed the western Panhandle on Oct. 8 as the center of the storm came ashore near Biloxi, Miss. Philippe brought rain and couple of tornadoes to the Southern part of the state as it made landfall Oct. 29 with 45 mph winds in Southwest Florida.
Overall, there were 17 named storms this year. The most devastation came from Harvey’s Aug. 26 landfall in Texas, Irma’s double landfall and run-up of Florida starting Sept. 10, and Maria’s destruction of utilities and other infrastructure across Puerto Rico on Sept. 20.
While spinning in the Atlantic, Irma reached maximum sustained winds of 185 mph, a pace it held for a record 37 consecutive-hours. Nate also set a record in October for the fastest forward motion recorded for a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We certainly did establish some records,” Wool said. “Harvey’s rainfall established a new rainfall record for one system in the United States. I think some areas had 60 inches of rains, which was phenomenal.”
Irma also set new benchmarks for evacuees – an estimated 6.5 million people left their homes in advance of the storm – and power outages and restoration crews. Florida Power & Light, for example, reported 90 percent of its customers – about 10 million people – were without power on average 2.3 days.
The agriculture industry has put a preliminary estimate of $2.5 billion on its losses from the storm.
More funds requested
However, Florida leaders have yet to convince the White House and Congress to include an estimated $761 million in losses to the citrus industry in a series of disaster-relief packages this year.
State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam again implored Florida’s congressional delegation on Tuesday to support U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney’s proposal to add $1.5 billion for Florida’s agricultural industry to a $44 billion disaster-relief request sent to Congress on Nov. 17 by the White House Office of Management and Budget.
While awaiting federal assistance, Scott authorized a $25 million interest-free loan program for citrus farmers.
Visit Florida, meanwhile, directed $5 million from its tourism budget for a special post-Irma marketing campaign, and Scott has requested lawmakers boost Visit Florida’s marketing dollars from $75 million in the current year to $100 million because of the need to have post-disaster marketing money readily available.
Still some closings
Despite the state saying tourism numbers continue to climb, hotels remain closed in parts of the Keys, where housing issues have grown for workers after Irma devastated a number of areas outside of Key West.
The Islamorada Resort Company, which hired more than 500 construction workers to repair storm damage at four locations on the islands, is reopening the first of the four on Dec. 15 and the second a month later.
“We are thrilled to welcome guests back to our slice of paradise,” said Eddie Sipple, the company’s area general manager.