The Florida House is rolling out dozens of recommendations on the state’s hurricane response efforts. Equipping emergency shelters and preparing healthcare facilities top the list.
The chamber organized a select committee after Hurricanes Irma and Nate battered nearly the entire state. The storms cut power to more than 6.7 million residents. Some damage estimates are as high as $65 billion.
Now lawmakers are laying out what fixes are feasible in this legislative session. Representative Jeanette Nuñez (R - Miami) is leading the process.
“This is by no means a comprehensive and exhaustive list. It is, what I call, the best starting point that we can have, to not only see the recommendations through in a legislative session, of which we are already in week two…but recognizing there are some short-term things that need to occur as well as some long-term things that need to occur,” Nuñez said.
Nuñez and her colleagues looked at a slate of issues including transportation and evacuation, education, healthcare, and utilities. They’re hoping the state will develop an online evacuation route tracker, practice contraflow on the interstates, and potentially limit building in high-risk areas. They want special funding for affordable housing, and could cut taxes for the state’s agriculture industry. They want local governments to work with utilities to speed up power restoration, and they want to recruit and train more shelter volunteers, among many other things.
Nuñez says now it’s up to relevant committees and interested lawmakers to act on the recommendations.
“I know there are a number of…bills that have been filed on a number of topics related to our committee’s charge. So I would fully expect the committees to not only look at our recommendations as a starting place, but also look at existing bills that have been filed that could perhaps be a vehicle for them to further that discussion,” Nuñez said.
And some lawmakers are already taking up their own priorities. One of the most pressing issues is the regulation of nursing homes and assisted living facilities. 14 people died at a rehab center in Hollywood Hills after the building lost power and temperatures climbed. Under the House proposals, healthcare facilities would also need emergency staffing agreements, individual plans for residents, and backup power. And they could see tax cuts on generators and fuel. But Senator Gary Farmer (D - Fort Lauderdale) says that's not enough.
“It is not just a generator issue,” Farmer said.
The deadly nursing home incident happened in Farmer’s district. He’s sponsoring a bill to expand the regulation of the clinics.
“There’s a lack of oversight by our state. There’s a lack of accountability and responsibility. If you own a car or open a barbershop in this state, you have to have liability insurance. Nursing homes do not. We must rectify that wrong,” Farmer said.
Other bills already in the works include a slate of local projects, but also potential property tax cuts for homes that saw hurricane damage. Other measures would expand job protections for evacuees and authorize the use of charter schools as emergency shelters.
Representative Bob Cortez (R - Altamonte Springs) says the committee’s impact is already expanding beyond the state of Florida. He’s been sharing the findings with lawmakers in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.
“They were the ones that obviously we saw were without a plan. They are where we were probably twenty or thirty years ago in hurricane preparedness. Being able to share some of these findings so they can be prepared for the next storm that may be coming in the future," Cortez said.
The select committee’s recommendations are just that. But by making the effort to organize a special inquiry to begin with, it seems House leadership at least sees hurricane response as a priority. As Chair Jeanette Nuñez said, the June 1st start of the storm season is coming up fast.