Irma a year later: Assessing the rubble of Florida’s disaster and preventing failure again

From NHC – outside of the Keys and Southwest Florida, Irma failed to produce sustained Hurricane force winds in Florida.

A year ago, the entirety of peninsular Florida was impacted by a storm named Irma. Powerful as it had been when it impacted the Leeward Islands and other parts of the Caribbean, a slight wobble which took into northern Cuba significantly took away its bite as it approached Florida. Peninsular Florida also had the added benefit of the storm ravaging the outer keys as a category 4 before making its way to Collier County as rapidly weakening force.

But peninsular Florida, even with more than a week’s notice remained woefully unprepared for what was a weaker storm than anticipated. Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irma is a story of political arrogance, official negligence and a population left helpless and at the mercy of the public officials they’ve entrusted to protect them.  The blame doesn’t lie with the Governor who tried to steer Florida through the storm but with countless legislators, local officials and regulators who just simply did not do the job asked of them before or after the storm. Politics it seems trumps public service these days for many.

The weakened storm now has gone down in history as the deadliest in the history of modern Florida (since 1950) – deadlier that Hurricanes such as Andrew, Dora, Opal, Charley, Dennis, Ivan or Wilma among others. In fact, in a direct reversal of the trends set by the storms just mentioned, Irma killed far more people as a reduced storm in Florida than it did in the islands – generally this is the opposite when it comes to Cabo Verde type storms like Irma that reach Major Hurricane status before plowing into Caribbean islands. Of the 134 deaths caused directly or indirectly by Irma, 84 were in Florida. The storm was among the strongest on record when it reached the Leeward Islands and leveled to ground large portions of St Martin, Sint Marteen, Grand Turk and extreme northern Cuba.

As we approach an election in 2018, it’s important Floridians remember the wrath of Irma, the botched aftermath in so many areas and hold those officials who put them in a largely helpless position accountable.

By Islanders41 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62406207

The two elected officials who played the most prominent visible roles during the storm were Governor Rick Scott and Senator Bill Nelson – the two face off against one another this November for a US Senate seat and possible partisan control of the body on the line. Scott came out of Irma looking good publicly as emergency response and calming the public seem to be among his strong suits. But it must remembered that Scott had previously panicked the public and wasted taxpayer money declaring states of emergency for what amounted non-events during tropical weather seasons of the past. Scott’s motivation in those cases may have been to help retailers like Publix, strong financial supporters of legislators in both parties and politicians in general. This having been said, Scott earned high marks during this particular storm, despite claims his office botched the handling of nursing homes after Irma.

As for Senator Nelson, he’s a throwback to a time when US Senator’s representing a state took an interest in humanitarian disasters because it is his job. Today’s breed of politician on both sides of the aisle lack Nelson’s overall compassion and understanding of this state. I can’t imagine a Hurricane in the future without this sort of figure though Scott certainly seems more tuned into this state’s general plight than Florida’s Junior Senator Marco Rubio, a show-horse whose entire public persona is built around personal ambition.

But enough about Nelson and Scott. They were two of the few bright spots coming from a storm where elected officials, state, county and municipal governments and other decision makers failed to cover themselves in glory. What went wrong with Irma has been widely documented.

A special mention should be given to House Speaker Richard Corcoran, arguably the most powerful elected official in the state at the time of Irma. Corcoran certainly understood the importance of the storm and did say and attempt to do the right things. But even someone as powerful as Corcoran can’t get the legislature to act alone or will local governments to go along with his thinking. But to Corcoran’s credit he pushed through suggestions, many of which were not acted on. It has been pointed out to me Corcoran was likely running for Governor at the time and perhaps was using the storm to outline a grander vision for that campaign. Whatever the case, so much of Corcoran’s post-storm rhetoric was appealing and much of it has simply been forgotten a year later.

Irma heads toward Collier County

Unfortunately, legislators who don’t have long-term views of much of anything fall prey to contemporary events. I live just a few miles from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School so I can relate to the tone of the Democrats after the February school shooting. But still Democrats who could pushed for effective reforms and given support to some recommendations made legislative committees after Irma completely dropped the subject for the easy, partisan talking points around gun control, when in fact BOTH should have been done.

Many Republicans (mostly from areas not hit as hard by the storm) found excuse after excuse to not implement some of the recommendations. Most notable in the AWOL category on this was Senate President Joe Negron who allowed his chamber to ignore many of the suggestions from House and seemingly led a body whose membership with few exceptions had moved on from the storm, which is highly irresponsible. In fairness, Negron’s chamber did role in tax breaks and some other Hurricane related regulations but did not do nearly enough.

Local governments too moved on from the storm all too fast. The poor coordination between municipal and county governments, the fights over contractors to clean up streets and the curtailing of zoning for residential or commercial development in environmentally sensitive areas STILL hasn’t happened in most places. Let’s hope the remainder of the 2018 Hurricane Season doesn’t bring us even a minor storm to further disrupt the state.

A reluctance to engage new revenue sources to pay for essential potential life saving remedies is nothing new for the Florida Legislature. But given the scope of Irma, and how what was a much weaker storm than anticipated caused incredible disruption all over the state, questions must be asked and answered of officials throughout Florida. While the state is committed to keeping taxes low and pushing items down to local governing authorities (except when it is ideologically inconvenient as we saw with the attempts at a naked power grab with Amendment 8)

We’ve put together a checklist of what needed to be done after Irma by our public officials. On this we’ve indicated status and passing, incomplete or failing grades.

Power grid and infrastructure

  • Our power companies must invest in newer equipment and more underground lines. (in progress, but rates have been hiked to pay for this – INC likely PASS)
  • Further investment in solar powered lamps, lanterns and lighting. (FAIL)
  • Is there a more efficient way to pump out floodwaters especially from areas built on buffer lands and environmentally sensitive areas? (FAIL)

Evacuation and return routes

  • Additional evacuation routes and orderly procedures need to be established. (In progress- INC)
  • Should we have a plan to create reversible lanes in the future to aid in evacuations? (discussed, not done yet)
  • In the future no housing development should be approved without sufficient evacuation routes. I can think of several in western Palm Beach County for instance where potential routes were rejected that would have been useful in this case.
  • Should some highways that failed to win public support such as the Heartland Parkway, Red Hills Parkway and Turnpike Extension to Lebanon Station be reconsidered? (FAIL)
  • A reserve of fuel needs to be set aside for those evacuating. Those staying in the areas that are projected to be impacted by storms should not have first priority for fuel if their is a shortage before the storm arrives- this is not something government can enforce but upon us as citizens if we are staying to not top off our fuel tanks so that those who need to fuel to evacuate can access it. Only once an orderly evacuation has taken place if fuel remains should citizens remaining top off their tanks. I personally violated this premise before the storm and feel very guilty about topping off a tank that might have resulted in gas being denied to someone evacuating. (TBD-INC)
  • Motorists should be encouraged to take routes like US 1, US 19, US 27, US 41, US 301 and US 441 in and out of the peninsula instead of sticking to Interstate highways which result in logjams. (TBD– INC)
  • Should evacuation orders be given earlier? Can the state work with the National Hurricane Center (NHC) on an enhanced warning system that builds off of the storm surge projections further in advance of a potential landfall? (TBD- INC)

Nursing homes and medical facilities

  • These facilities must invest in generator power AND be put on the priority list to have power restored before private residences. It should not be an either or option. This includes nursing homes, hospitals, urgent care clinics and other similar facilities. (FAILWSJ STORY)
  • All charter schools should be brought up to appropriate code and thus we have more shelters that can be used – this will give us more facilities to house the especially vulnerable in our society. (FAIL)

Building code

  •  Outside of Broward and Miami-Dade counties the building code needs to be enhanced. A full accounting of what works in the current codes and what didn’t hold up in Irma should be put together before making any decisions. (FAIL)

Debris clearance

  • What happens if we have a Frances/Jeanne double-whammy like 2004 where the same area of the state is impacted by storms just 21 days apart? Based on the pace of Irma debris removal in many parts of the state, had Maria not turned north as early as it did we would have had a repeat scenario with many municipalities and counties still haggling over timelines and contractors. This is completely unacceptable and the state needs to draft guidelines to keep local governments on task and in line when it comes to this. (FAIL)

Road signs

  • Missing road signs needed to be replaced. Some of the missing road signs were important as guide markers for those who come from out of state and spend their tourism dollars with us here in Florida.  (PASS – FDOT did well with the storm)

Florida needs to do better with the next storm which hopefully doesn’t happen for a long time.

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