Florida editorial roundup

May 29, 2019

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:


May 29

The Palm Beach Post on storm preparation:

Saturday, June 1, is the official start if the 2019 Atlantic storm season. It is the second season since Hurricane Irma exposed, in tragic fashion, a weakness in Florida’s vaunted storm preparation: a lack of reliable backup power systems at thousands of the state’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities (ALFs).

At the cusp of the new season, far too many nursing homes and ALFs are still struggling to meet requirements that they have backup power to keep their facilities — and fragile, elderly residents — cool in case of an outage.

That’s not what anyone wants to hear.

Certainly not the families of 12 elderly residents of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills who died as a result of the sweltering heat after the facility lost power when Hurricane Irma hit in September 2017. It was a nightmare scenario for the families of those residents who had entrusted their loved ones to the Hollywood facility — which, as it turned out, already had some “issues” with the state Agency for Health Care Administration (ACHA).

Gov. Rick Scott rightly acted swiftly to impose new backup generator rules on nursing homes and ALFs. That’s saying something, given that he came into office removing whatever regulations he could from the industry — and others — alleging such regulations were costly.

The deaths of those Hollywood Hills nursing home residents unfortunately taught us the potential cost of a lack of regulation, as well. Families of nursing homes and ALF residents are right to be wary.

The emergency rules gave long-term care facilities two months to have generators installed on site and to stock 96 hours of fuel to power the generators. After legal wrangling between industry groups and the Scott administration, the two sides reached an accord in 2018 that required backup generators by Jan. 1, 2019, but included a process that nursing homes and assisted living facilities could follow to be considered in compliance.

It’s an inability to meet these requirements, nearly two years hence, that has elder advocates like Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat whose district includes the Hollywood Hills home, so concerned.

“There’s no excuse,” she said at a Friday news conference in front of the now-closed facility with former state Sen. Eleanor Sobel. “They make tons of money. They can do what they want to do. They just don’t want to.”

But industry officials blame delays on local permitting and building-code requirements, backlogs for generators, and of course, cost.

“They are working to meet deadlines,” said Kristin Knapp, spokeswoman for the Florida Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes. “But these aren’t generators that you can buy at Home Depot and plug in. You want it done safe and you want it done right.”

According to the latest figures from AHCA, only 35 percent of the state’s 684 nursing homes across the state have installed backup generators. The remaining 444 nursing homes have submitted requests for “variances” from the rules.

As for ALFs, nearly 75 percent, or 2,301 providers, have met the requirement to have generators on site. The other 706 facilities that have requested additional time to get backup generators are responsible for more than 38 percent of the beds in assisted living facilities.

The rules allowed the state to grant an extension to Jan. 1 for providers that couldn’t meet the initial deadline. Variances then gave providers another six months, according to state officials. But now, many nursing homes are seeking second variances, according to AHCA.

Unfortunately, that includes dozens in Palm Beach County. According to AHCA, about 83 percent of the county’s 55 nursing homes and 185 ALFs have had their emergency plans approved by the county emergency management department.

AHCA noted that 37 of the nursing homes have not implemented their generator plans, but have requested variances and are considered in compliance by the state. Fifty-four ALFs have not implemented their generator plans, but only 13 are considered out of compliance because they have not requested a variance.

Obviously, this lack of compliance means someone else will need to pick up the slack.

“I think it is probably incumbent upon us (to make sure the facilities are prepared),” Palm Beach County Commissioner Gregg Weiss said at a May workshop. “At this point in time, they’re not going to be ready and it’s going to fall to, unfortunately, the county or some of our municipalities to sort this out and be able to be ready to receive and deal with that situation,”

“We certainly don’t want a repeat of what we clearly know could happen,” he added.

Indeed. The Hollywood Hills facility lost its license and shut down. The Hollywood Police Department launched a criminal investigation that is still “active and ongoing.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration, given the number of long-term care providers that are unable to meet the timelines, has indicated that it may revisit the backup power mandate. But that has yet to happen.

We suggest they follow Wilson’s advice.

“I think we need to be forceful in putting them on the path to solving their problems,” Wilson said Friday. “No one is going to forgive them if something happens... that’s unacceptable. Totally unacceptable.”



May 24:

The Sun Sentinel on Gov. Ron DeSantis and climate change:

When it comes to climate change, there’s been a sea change in Florida politics.

The new attitude starts at the top, where Gov. Ron DeSantis last month appointed the state’s first Chief Science Officer to find “science-based solutions” to environmental concerns, particularly the blue-green algae and red tide outbreaks that have tarnished Florida’s cachet.

Now the governor is advertising for a Chief Resilience Officer, someone who will work to “prepare Florida for the environmental, physical and economic impacts of climate change, especially sea-level rise.”

The new positions represent a watershed moment in a state with more to lose than any other. It feels like that moment in the Wizard of Oz, where the movie turns from black-and-white to color. That both offices will be housed in the governor’s suite — and report directly to DeSantis — sends a serious message.

With the exception of House Speaker José Oliva, Florida’s Republican leaders no longer deny the reality of climate change, which every major scientific organization recognizes is real, is exacerbated by human activity and poses an existential threat.

Even our former governor has changed his tune. “Climate change (which is real and requires real solutions) is the religion of the new Left in America,” U.S. Sen. Rick Scott wrote in a recent Orlando Sentinel op-ed.

Sure, the former governor placed the words in parentheses and in a disparaging context. But, look. Even Rick Scott is using the words “climate change” and recognizes it’s real. Perhaps he can now share his thoughts on real solutions.

“Climate change isn’t something people get to choose to believe or not, it’s happening,” U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach, one of President Trump’s biggest cheerleaders, said in a recent interview with Vice. “I can tell the earth is warming based on overwhelming scientific evidence and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve released like 300 years of carbon in the last several decades.”

Miami state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, who wore rainboots during the legislative session to keep climate top of mind, told us “there’s not a debate on science anymore. It’s an economic and fiscal debate, and I think that has been helpful.”

A sense of optimism is emerging among Florida scientists, environmentalists and government officials who have spent the past eight years frustrated by the Scott administration’s head-in-the-sand approach to the rising waters, extreme rainfalls and more-powerful hurricanes on the radar.

But while encouraged, they’re also reserving judgment. For while DeSantis pushed the Florida Legislature to find $686 million for Everglades repair, Lake Okeechobee fixes and springs restoration — all important elements of the climate-change picture — his muscle was missing behind a bill that would have required state contractors to consider sea-level projections when building in coastal areas.

Also, the celebration of a new red tide task force fed some skepticism. Given all that’s known about the causes and migration of red tide, those on the front lines would have preferred pollution controls and investments in water treatment.

And in a record-setting $91 billion state budget, only $26 million was set aside to address county water projects related to sea-level rise, such as stormwater drainage, canal erosion and failing septic tanks. Of that, Palm Beach County is poised to get $1.26 million for four small projects; Miami-Dade will get $5.4 million for 16 projects; and Broward, which always draws the short straw, will get $700,000 for three small projects.

But let’s cut the governor a break. He just took office in January. And his environmental secretary, Noah Valenstein, was key to helping advance the sea-level rise planning bill through two Senate committees, though it never reached the floor.

So in the spirit of encouragement, we offer these suggestions on how best to position the state’s new chief resilience officer (CRO) for maximum success.

- Give him or her a budget and staff. It’s great to name a spokesperson, a leader, an evangelist to talk about the need to prepare for the changes coming our way. But without financial muscle, plans will gather water on the shelf.

- Let him address energy, too. To attract the best candidate, don’t restrict the scope to adaptation. Let Florida’s CRO champion a clean-energy plan that lessens the state’s reliance on fossil fuels. Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, which last week reached a record-high level of 415 parts per million, are heating our planet. To help avoid the worst-case scenarios of climate change, Florida should lead on clean energy in a big, enormous way.

- Establish sea-level rise projections for all regions of Florida. Then, draft a resilience priority plan for raising roads, hardening critical infrastructure and discouraging development in low-lying areas. Pay special attention to vulnerable stormwater and wastewater systems, and the availability of fresh drinking water. Ensure resiliency is part of every state project.

- Think big. South Florida’s aging flood-control system needs to be rethought and rebuilt. During king tides, some gates can no longer open because seawater is higher on the other side. That means more inland flooding, more canal erosion and more loss of land. Working with the governor, the CRO should marshal all resources necessary to focus the federal government on its responsibility to protect our at-risk region from flooding. That includes raising seawalls along its Intracoastal Waterway.

- Insist on coordination between local and regional governments, particularly the state’s five water management districts. Up to now, there’s not been much. Miami, Hollywood and Delray Beach may do all they can to raise seawalls or install tidal valves that keep seawater out of stormwater systems, but if the water management district doesn’t commit to implementing regional solutions, city solutions will falter.

- Use the Florida Climate Institute — an association of 10 Florida universities — as a kitchen cabinet. Encourage lawmakers to fund research on the questions the state needs answered, like projections for future rainfall and rising groundwater tables.

- Speak the language of the financial markets. Long before we ever get wet, our insurance rates will rise. So will the cost of borrowing money. To get ahead of the problem, Florida’s CRO should ensure that every dollar spent reduces our risk in the eyes of the insurance and credit markets.

“Every time you spend any money — whether raising roads, or building seawalls or using green, nature-based solutions to soak up the storm surge, please Florida, be able to demonstrate that this intervention reduces the one-in-100-year flood loss by X percent,” says Daniel Stander, global managing director for Risk Management Solutions in London. “If the CRO doesn’t do that, it’s the market that will tell Florida’s story.”

Under Gov. DeSantis, Florida’s story on the climate crisis is starting a new chapter.

The governor is to be commended for creating these two cornerstone positions. As he pursues more building blocks needed to protect our future, we encourage him to remain bold.




May 23

The Ocala Star-Banner on Florida and the 2020 Census:

Is Florida ready for the 2020 Census? It’s not an idle question. Across the nation, states are gearing up to count every man, woman and child within their borders in the constitutionally mandated, nationwide count that takes place once every 10 years. They understand how critical these tallies can be in divvying up federal dollars and political clout; after the 2000 census Florida picked up two congressional seats and added two more in 2010. If things go as expected, Florida could get two more in 2020, bringing the total to 29 seats. That second seat is close to being on the bubble, however, according to Virginia-based Election Data Services.

And things aren’t going as expected. To be ready on time, Florida should have started its planning already. But as our sister paper, The Daytona Beach News-Journal, reported, when they asked the Department of State, which has overseen the state’s census-taking in the past, about census preparation, they received an emailed reply: “This falls outside of the Florida Department of State’s purview.”

At least that department replied. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office never did, despite being contacted several times over two and a half months.

The Legislature’s silence is equally thundering. A bill that would have set up a “complete count” committee, similar to one already up and running in California, failed. There appears to be no mention — and thus, no funding — for census activities in the budget for the fiscal year that starts in July.

When state officials do talk about the census, they seem mostly focused on the question of whether the federal government should include a citizenship question on the forms. Nationally, Republicans have seized on this question as a totem for their general animosity toward illegal immigration, and some of Florida’s leaders have picked that thread.

That’s utterly bewildering: Citizenship questions have been shown to depress total counts, and that can only cost this state, particularly in money targeted for vulnerable seniors and families living in poverty. The simple act of counting people who live here, including an estimated 1 million undocumented immigrants, will convey no extra rights or privileges to anyone. It will simply say: These are the people who are here, driving on Florida’s roads, sending their children to Florida’s schools, showing up in hospital emergency rooms and finding places to live. That count should be as accurate as state officials can possibly make it.

The bigger challenge, however, is Florida’s apparent disinterest in preparing for the count at all. Where’s the outreach to those vulnerable populations who are least likely to return their mailed census forms, including seniors, legal immigrants and families living in poverty? Where is the preparation to train thousands of temporary census workers who will fan out across communities Pensacola to Pine Key?

To their credit, local municipal and school officials have started their own preparation. It’s time for DeSantis and other state officials to kick it into high gear.



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