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Senate proposals aim to help in future storm recovery

Destroyed homes on Matlacha Island, Fla. on Monday after Hurricane Ian ravaged the area.
Carlos Osorio for NPR
Destroyed homes on Matlacha Island, Fla. on Monday after Hurricane Ian ravaged the area.

TALLAHASSEE --- After Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole devastated parts of the state last year, the Florida Senate is pursuing a series of proposals aimed at helping communities recover from future storms.

The proposals, released Friday by the Senate Select Committee on Resiliency, include ensuring that people would be able to remain on their property as they rebuild, requiring quicker approval of building permits and setting more-exact time frames on removing destroyed boats from state waters.

The legislation (SB 250), sponsored by Sen. Jonathan Martin, R-Fort Myers, also seeks to establish temporary housing for disaster relief workers and make permanent funding for local-government emergency loans.

“In the roughly six months since these devastating storms, we have gained a deeper understanding of the long-term impacts on communities across our state,” said Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican whose home sustained damage in Hurricane Ian, which made landfall Sept. 28 in Southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm.

A separate package is expected to emerge from the House Select Committee on Hurricane Resiliency & Recovery. Lawmakers will consider the proposals during the legislative session that will start March 7.

Some of the Senate proposals were recommended by state Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie. That includes proposals to shield from public records the names of people harmed by disasters and require local governments to have uniform pre-storm contracts for 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 last month. “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.”

Guthrie also asked for a reduction in the amount of time people have to remove damaged boats from waterways.

Vessel owners were given 45 days after Ian crossed the state in late September to get boats out of derelict condition. However, damaged and destroyed vessels remained in state waters as 2023 got underway.

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.

Among the Senate proposals:

--- Requiring local governments to speed permitting processes after emergencies such as hurricanes and encouraging them to create inspection teams to review temporary housing, repairs and renovations.

--- Allowing residents to use temporary housing, such as travel trailers or mobile homes, on their property while rebuilding after storms.

--- Encouraging local governments to adopt plans for temporarily housing disaster-response workers.

--- Retroactively prohibiting local governments from raising building fees until Oct. 1, 2024, in areas affected by Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole.

--- Setting a 45-day period after hurricanes for owners to repair or remove derelict boats before the state takes the damaged craft.

--- Creating a public record exemption for the names of people critically injured or killed in natural disasters. The proposal, filed in a separate bill (SB 248), would lead to the information being held by the Division of Emergency Management for 30 days before being released.

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