Florida’s subtropical climate offers us beautiful weather year-round, but it also leaves us susceptible to hurricanes. Last September, record-breaking Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida as a Category 4 storm. Unfortunately, our state was not prepared to handle such a catastrophic storm, as indicated in an audit conducted by the Florida Division of Emergency Management. Some of the audit’s findings were particularly troublesome – in Orlando, food and water supplies at the city’s distribution center were inadequate. Plus, contracts with companies supplying cots to hurricane shelters had expired.
In addition to the lack of crucial hurricane supplies, the disaster management agency failed to timely reimburse cities and counties for the cost of storm damage and recovery efforts. This left Florida’s cities and counties without the resources they needed to prepare for a future disaster. In Seminole County, hurricane shelters were often understaffed when taking in evacuees from Hurricane Irma. The county faced extensive flooding in the Wekiva basin, and 75 percent of residents lost power during the storm. During my conversations with residents, I learned that many of them waited weeks for power restoration and debris pickup.
With another active hurricane season looming in the future, we cannot afford to be ill-prepared yet again. Not being fully prepared has consequences, as we witnessed last September with the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills tragedy. Severe understaffing and a lack of generators led to the unnecessary deaths of 12 seniors, and dozens suffered from heat-related health issues. Our family members living in nursing homes or assisted living facilities need additional protections to prevent these horrible incidents. Generator laws were finally passed in March 2018, but I believe this tragedy may have been prevented had our legislators acted sooner.
We cannot talk about hurricane preparedness without acknowledging the tragedy suffered by Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. At least 112 people lost their lives as a result of the storm, and the island still faces severe infrastructure issues today. Puerto Rico’s power grid is still somewhat unreliable, and primary care services are often unavailable. Infectious diseases have spread as residents drink contaminated water, and many residents with mental health conditions have not been receiving the treatment they need. Our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico are still facing incredible challenges, and we must welcome those who are now calling Florida home. I believe that Puerto Ricans entering our state should have the tools they need for success, including housing, medical care, and job opportunities.