Florida: Hurricane committee focuses on seniors, power grid
By JOE REEDY
Jan. 16, 2018
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida's first major hurricane in 12 years has spawned 78 recommendations from lawmakers seeking to improve the state's readiness before the next big one.
The 21-member House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness approved its final report Tuesday. It says strengthening the power grid, better management of shelters and increased care for seniors should be the top priorities.
The committee was formed by Speaker Richard Corcoran after Hurricane Irma caused widespread damage from the Florida Keys to Jacksonville. The first major storm to hit Florida since Wilma in 2005, Irma knocked out power to much of the state, affecting millions, including a South Florida nursing home where 12 people died after electricity and air conditioning went out.
"We experience changes from each storm that hits each area. Irma is different because it hit everyone and we all had those lessons at the same time," said Rep. Kristin Jacobs, a committee member.
Committee chair Jeanette Nunez said the report is not a comprehensive and exhaustive list but the best starting point for various House committees to pursue. Nunez also notes that the list includes most of the recommendations are long-term projects.
"We tried to balance some of the short-term needs alongside the long-term recommendations not only because of the fiscal considerations but also things are going to take time for study and analysis," she said.
Both the House and Senate have bills in committees that would make backup generators mandatory at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Both chambers are getting closer to finding common ground on proposals to help pay for the generators, such as increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates or using state money or tax breaks.
The committee also thinks that the state can do more to better train county and local officials in managing storm shelters before the next hurricane season starts on June 1.
"We're making sure that locals are better prepared," Nunez said.
The process of restoring and hardening Florida's power grid will take longer, such as installing more underground lines. More than 6.7 million residents were without power during Irma and many faced prolonged outages. The committee's recommendations stopped short of recommending underground power lines but did recommend the state's Public Service Commission study all feasible measures as well as funding some storm hardening projects.
Jacobs, a Democrat from Coconut Creek, said she welcomed any steps to improve power infrastructure but was concerned he hadn't see the issue of more underground power lines being addressed yet.
"I am confident the issue will be addressed but I don't know the timeline," she said.
After a record 6.5 million people were evacuated because of Irma, there are recommendations to establish petroleum distribution centers throughout the state and provide residents with a real-time, web-based evacuation route tool.
Nunez, a Republican who represents a Miami district, said she was proud of the committee's work in trying to provide a framework for as many issues as possible.
"I believe that we did get a little comfortable in our planning and resiliency efforts since we had not been impacted by a storm in over a decade," she said. "Human nature is you move on to next big issue. From the Legislature's perspective we need to keep bringing it to the forefront and not ever get comfortable again."