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Florida's emergency chief seeks changes in disaster response

MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com
The Miami Herald
Donna LaMountain, 51, surveys damage on Pine Island Road on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Matlacha, Florida. Hurricane Ian made landfall on the coast of Southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm the afternoon before, leaving areas affected with flooded streets, downed trees and scattered debris.

Florida’s emergency-management director wants lawmakers to make changes to help with disaster preparation and response, pointing to issues that have arisen as the state recovers from Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole.

Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie this week asked lawmakers to reduce the amount of time people have to remove damaged boats from waterways and to provide uniform requirements for local governments about debris-removal contracts. He also wants to tweak a new relief fund and shield from public records the names of people harmed by disasters.

“What we're talking about is media outlets. We're talking about lawyers, attorneys, those that are seeking to try to start making money off of disaster survivors and victims," Guthrie told members of the Senate Select Committee on Resiliency as he described the proposed public-records exemption.

READ MORE: ‘On borrowed time.’ Why coastal Florida keeps rebuilding after storms like Hurricane Ian

“If you recall, there was about a 72-hour period where we created a website that allowed people to kind of self-report they were either safe or needed to check on an individual,” Guthrie added. “We had multitudes of individuals, multitudes of private sector organizations, trying to get their hands on that data.”

Hurricane Ian Special Session
Phil Sears/AP
FR170567 AP
At center, Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples kisses Rep. Josie Tomkow, R-Polk City after his SB 2-A Property Insurance bill he co-sponsored passed 84-33 Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022 in the House of Representatives in Tallahassee, Fla. At left is Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka; at right is House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast. Florida lawmakers are meeting to consider ways to shore up the state's struggling home insurance market in the year's second special session devoted to the topic. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)

Committee Chairman Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, called the proposals “logical and thoughtful,” adding that the committee will have to figure out which are “doable.”

“If I've learned one thing in this entire process, it’s that things that look really simple are rarely really simple,” Albritton told reporters after the Wednesday meeting.

Albritton lent his support to creating a public-records exemption, calling it “troublesome when you have folks that are looking to exploit information for private gain, when maybe families haven't been notified, or maybe they haven't developed all the circumstances to what may or may not have happened to a victim.”

Albritton noted an issue such as removing derelict boats from waterways could be more complicated.

“Different parts of the state have different challenges,” Albritton said. “I know down in the Keys they have trouble finding owners, because there's no number on the boat, there's no registration … and by law, they have to provide some flexibility for those things.”

Vessel owners were given 45 days after Ian crossed the state to get boats out of derelict condition. However, some vessels still remain in state waters as the recovery effort continues from Ian, which made landfall Sept. 28 in Southwest Florida as a Category 4 hurricane.

Guthrie noted that “tightening” the timeframe could help the state secure federal reimbursements for removing watercraft, as boats left derelict for 45 days or longer might no longer warrant FEMA funding or even result in the state having to eventually return some relief money.

Removing derelict boats has long been an issue in the state.

Lawmakers last year increased funding for removing such vessels from $3.5 million to $8.2 million, after giving law enforcement more authority to address boats that have no effective means of propulsion and have taken on water or are on the verge of becoming unanchored.

 A boat is seen from the Midpoint Bridge in the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers as Hurricane Ian hits the West Coast of Florida as Category 4 storm, on Wednesday September 28, 2022
Pedro Portal
Miami Herald
A boat is seen from the Midpoint Bridge in the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers as Hurricane Ian hits the West Coast of Florida as Category 4 storm, on Wednesday September 28, 2022

Also, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission moved forward with a program that encouraged owners of boats that have been abandoned, wrecked, junked or substantially dismantled in state waters to rid themselves of the vessels at no cost.

Meanwhile, lawmakers last year established a disaster-relief fund, known as the Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund, and put $500 million into it. Guthrie said Wednesday that some “additional clarity” is needed on its use.

The fund was created as a pool of cash the governor could dip into without having to get approval from the Legislative Budget Commission, which is made up of House and Senate budget leaders and meets periodically.

Guthrie also suggested lawmakers require local governments to have pre-storm contracts that cover all aspects of debris removal.

“The state has had to navigate the removal of different types of debris, including private and commercial property debris, including demolition, vegetative and construction debris, and vehicles and vessels,” Guthrie said. “One of the problems that we encountered is that there is a lack of a uniform process to ensure that all of those appropriate entities have all of those appropriate line items in every one of their contracts.”

Jim Turner is a reporter for the News Service of Florida.