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Voting access post-Hurricane Ian, WLRN reporters cover Southwest Florida devastation, the future of Tower Theater

Homes that sustained wind damage caused by Hurricane Ian are seen in this aerial view, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Fort Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
Homes that sustained wind damage caused by Hurricane Ian are seen in this aerial view, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Fort Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Search and rescue efforts are ongoing, more than a week after Hurricane Ian devastated communities in the southwestern coast and central part of the state. In Lee County alone, more than 55 deaths were linked to the Category 4 Ian, according to the latest figures from the county’s Sheriff's Office.

The overall death count from Ian has reached 101, making it the second-deadliest hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in the 21st century. Hurricane Katrina takes that first spot. According to The Florida Medical Examiners Commission, 92 of the confirmed deaths are from Florida alone.

The storm has affected everyone in its path. From people living in mobile home communities to first responders working around the clock, handling emergencies while their own homes are damaged.

Some of WLRN’s reporters made their way to Fort Myers and along the west coast, assisting affected news stations with reporting and bringing an on-the-ground perspective to listeners in South Florida.

Gerard Albert III left his usual Broward beat to report from Fort Myers to Cape Coral, Estero and Pine Island. He said that even though it feels like everyone is rushing to recover, the atmosphere has still been communal.

“Everybody is helping each other out, everybody is checking up on each other,” he said.

Most of the places Gerard visited saw flooding from nearby rivers that lead out to the Gulf. Most houses were under 3 to 4 foot of water, with boats in various yards and downed trees everywhere.

“And then on Pine Island, which is the barrier island on the north end, it actually swept away a couple of houses and part of the bridge to get on the island,” he said.

He also said that what some people need will vary from region to region, as some areas did not receive as much water or damage as others.

There are many groups you can reach out to if you want to send aid over to Southwest Florida.

  • Immokalee was relatively unscathed from Hurricane Ian, so the Coalition of Migrant Workers is sending aid to migrant workers in the affected areas. More information can be found here.
  • The International Association of Fire Fighters is assisting firefighters affected by the storm. They are accepting donations here.
  • For those who don't have insurance, have found a place to rent, are underinsured or have cars destroyed, you may be entitled up to $37,900, and an additional $37,900 if you need to make repairs to your home. Register to find out your eligibility by calling the FEMA hotline 800-621-3362 or go online to disasterassistance.gov

Voter access after Hurricane Ian

More than a week after Hurricane Ian destroyed homes and businesses in the southwest and central part of the state, communities and county officials face another logistical challenge: major midterm elections, which include a high-profile governor’s race.

Election officials have to worry about how to get displaced voters to precincts, as officials continue to assess damage to buildings that include voting sites.

A research paper published by the University of Florida may provide a window into voting habits after another major hurricane. WLRN reporter and South Florida Roundup co-host Danny Rivero interviewed Kevin Morris, a researcher with the Brennan Center for Justice and co-author of the paper, about Florida’s post-Ian voting landscape.

The paper focused on Hurricane Michael, which devastated Florida’s panhandle in 2018 a few weeks before the midterm elections.

“What they did is they analyzed the typical voter turnout in the eight counties that were most affected and they kind of ran that same data in that election after the storm,” Danny said. “What they found was a 7% drop in voter participation in the impacted counties."

Because some of these counties are rural and not too populated, it was estimated that 13,000 people who would typically vote did not vote. Rivero said this was notable because the then senate race between Rick Scott and Bill Nelson was decided by only 10,000 votes.

In their interview, Kevin Morris pointed out that Hurricane Ian hit a much larger area. Lee County is the most populated, reliably Republican county in the state.

“The alarm that the researchers are raising right now is if the state doesn’t figure out the logistics of this, if local elections officials don’t figure this out … That area could see a very large drop in voter participation,” Danny said.

Read Danny Rivero’s interview with Kevin Morris here.

Miami-Dade College might not run Tower Theater for much longer.

There’s controversy surrounding Tower Theater, the beloved Little Havana arthouse cinema. The City of Miami decided to end its lease with Miami Dade College.

On Sept. 19, the city’s Department of Real Estate and Asset Management sent a notice to MDC saying that the city will take over the theater when the college’s contract ends in January 2023.

A spokesperson from the college informed the Miami Herald that they had been in talks with the city for 20 months about the future of the theater, but communications fell apart.

Nicolas Calzada, director of the Tower Theater, said the college has shown plenty of flexibility in incorporating the city’s ideas into the program they’ve been running for the past 20 years.

Commissioner Joe Carollo said this week they may use the Tower Theater into a visitor’s center for tourists visiting Little Havana.

“The college has said 'Hey, Monday to Friday we don’t have our first shows until the evening, we’re very happy to turn it over from 9 to 5 so the city can welcome visitors from out of town,'” he said.

“There is a way to incorporate these ideas while still continuing the incredibly beloved programs that we’ve been running here for 20 years.”

Calzada said there is a way to expand use for the building, but protesters have expressed a desire to keep the city out of the cinema’s operation entirely.

Chris Molina, a Miami filmmaker, created a petition to keep the cinema under MDC’s operation. It has generated nearly 7,000 signatures. As a historic location in Miami, he believes its programming and operation the past two decades has been ideal.

“What are we going to do with a tourist visitor center... Everyone’s pretty upset by it,” he said. “Also, everyone keeps pointing out there is a visitors center a couple of blocks away, so why turn the Tower Theater, which is so beloved, into something that already exists?”

Molina said he and others will show up at the next commissioner’s meeting on Oct. 13 to let their voices be heard, even if it isn’t on the agenda.

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Natu Tweh is WLRN's Morning Edition Producer. He also reports on general news out of South Florida.