Hurricane Irma tore through Florida almost a month ago.
But the state continues to count its losses and look for ways to better prepare for hurricanes – all while hoping the latest storm doesn’t make a right-hand turn in the Gulf of Mexico.
Nov. 30 can’t come soon enough.
Maybe then, with the end of hurricane season, Floridians can let down their collective guard. And maybe Gov. Rick Scott will be able to shift out of emergency-management mode and hang up his Navy hat.
But while Scott and other officials have remained focused on hurricanes, the business of state government has resumed after Irma. One sign is that lawmakers will be back in the Capitol next week to prepare for the 2018 legislative session.
Meanwhile, the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years, is ratcheting up work as it prepares to place proposed constitutional amendments on the November 2018 ballot.
TAKING IT ON THE CHIN
All sorts of numbers spew out during and after a hurricane: the number of power outages, the number of insurance claims, the number of deaths and on and on.
But maybe the most-striking number this week was $2.5 billion.
An early estimate from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said Hurricane Irma caused more than $2.5 billion in damage to the agriculture industry when it made landfall Sept. 10 and then plowed up the state.
Making matters worse, the largest estimated losses – $761 million – came in the citrus industry, which already has been reeling from deadly greening disease. Also hit hard was the nursery industry, with almost $624 million in estimated losses.
“Florida agriculture took it on the chin as Hurricane Irma pummeled the state,” said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who called the $2.5 billion figure “only an initial assessment.”
“We’re likely to see even greater economic losses as we account for loss of future production and the cost to rebuild infrastructure,” Putnam added.
The report estimated 421,176 acres of citrus were affected in Collier, Hendry, Lee, Brevard, Glades, Charlotte, St. Lucie, Highlands, Indian River, Okeechobee, DeSoto, Hardee, Osceola, Polk and Martin counties. Meanwhile, the nursery industry estimated that 46,204 acres of greenhouse, nursery, and floriculture production was affected.
Agriculture, of course, is a major industry in Florida. But in Monroe County, where Irma made initial landfall, the concerns focus on restoring an even-bigger industry: tourism.
Scott appeared Wednesday in Key West to talk up recovery efforts. Also, the state tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida has rolled out a multimillion-dollar post-hurricane marketing plan that will include a component focused on the Keys, where tourism is a lifeblood.
“We’re going to do everything we can to get everybody to come down here,” Scott said. “We’ve already started that. On top of that, we’re going to do a lot more through Visit Florida. The Legislature gave us $76 million to market our state and we’re going to put it to good use, especially right now. When people wonder, `Are we open for business?’ We absolutely are open for business.”
But it wasn’t exactly that simple. The Islamorada Resort Company estimated Monday that it may take up to six months to stagger the reopening of four resorts – Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina, Amara Cay Resort, La Siesta Resort & Marina and Pelican Cove Resort & Marina.
“We have engaged more than 500 construction workers who are currently doing everything they can to repair our properties so that we can welcome guests back in the near future,” said Eddie Sipple, the company’s area general manager.
The state’s recovery efforts could be complicated if another big storm hits Florida this fall. Scott and emergency managers were preparing Friday as Tropical Storm Nate raced up the Gulf of Mexico toward an expected landfall in Louisiana or Mississippi.
The storm, which likely will become a hurricane, could send heavy winds, storm surge and rain this weekend into Northwest Florida.
“We’re going to get rain. We’re going to get storm surge. We’re going to get wind. We don’t know how bad it’s going to be,” Scott said Friday during a briefing in Escambia County. “This storm, like all these storms, is going to change. So you have got to stay vigilant.”
STEMMING THE CONFUSION
It’s safe to say the Florida Constitution Revision Commission will never be as riveting as a hurricane. Don’t expect to see The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore reporting live from a commission meeting.
But the work of the 37-member panel could affect Florida for decades.
The commission and several committees held four days of meetings this week to sift through information and proposals. The ultimate goal is to agree on what likely will be a relative handful of proposed constitutional amendments that will go before voters in November 2018.
If approved by voters, those amendments will be the law of the state for the foreseeable future.
Drawing considerable attention this week were proposals dealing with Florida’s primary-election system.
“When it comes to the primary election, our voters are confused,” Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes told the Constitution Revision Commission’s Ethics and Elections Committee.
Many new voters move to Florida from other states with more open voting systems as opposed to Florida’s closed primaries, which are restricted to voters who are registered with parties. Florida is one of nine states using a closed-primary system.
Adding to the confusion is that more voters are opting not to join the Republican or Democratic parties but register with “no party affiliation” or in a host of minor parties. No-party affiliation is the fastest growing segment of the electorate and is particularly popular with young people, with more than one out of every four Florida voters falling into that category.
Steven Hough of the group Florida Fair and Open Primaries talked to the Ethics and Elections Committee about his proposal to change Florida’s closed-primary system to a “top-two” system where all voters could participate in primary elections.
Patterned after election systems used in California and Washington, Hough said the revision would place all candidates for an office in the primary, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the general election.
But maybe drawing more attention was a proposal to change what has become known as the “write-in candidate loophole.”
Florida opens primaries to all voters when all of the candidates are from the same party and there is no general-election opposition. But that has been undermined by a state Division of Elections ruling, upheld by the courts, that says the presence of a general election write-in candidate closes primaries, even if only one party has a primary election.
The net effect of the loophole is that the primary winner ends up as the only name on the general election ballot, virtually assuring a win. Snipes said the use of write-in candidates in Broward, the county with second-highest voter registration, is fairly common.
“What I see happen quite often is the write-in candidate is put into the race as a tool to close the race down,” Snipes said, saying many write-in candidates even drop out before the general election.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimated that Hurricane Irma caused more than $2.5 billion in damage to the state’s agriculture industry.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Sadly, (in) Florida we know what we’re doing after the Pulse nightclub.” – Attorney General Pam Bondi, as she and staff members prepared to go to Nevada to help victims of a mass shooting in Las Vegas.
This report includes material from News Service staff writers Jim Turner and Lloyd Dunkelberger and Assignment Manager Tom Urban. Republished with permission.