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As Michael closes in, state has its own storm-related issues

As hurricane warnings went up, the state disaster web site went down.

Shelters were open, yet a U.S. senator was blocked from a state briefing room. And the state's emergency management management director predicted "plenty of punches" ahead.

At the Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson arrived to check preparations for Hurricane Michael. Nelson is in a fierce re-election fight with Gov. Rick Scott, whose domain in hurricanes is the EOC and who must manage a trouble-free response.

To say Nelson got a cold shoulder Monday is an understatement. When the senior U.S. senator tried to meet with reporters, including Times/Herald staffers, he was physically blocked from walking into the room and had to meet with them outside.

This couldn't have anything to do with election-year politics, could it?

"The briefing room in the state emergency response center is used solely to disseminate weather and other life safety or emergency information from the state emergency response team," said spokesman Alberto Moscoso of the Division of Emergency Management. "This has been standard practice for years."

Was Nelson the candidate also present Monday? Obviously. But his remarks were only about the storm, as he avoided all talk of politics. He sent a letter to Scott's chief elections official, asking that Tuesday's voter registration deadline be extended due to storm evacuation orders in 11 counties.

"Floridians responding to a natural disaster should not be penalized because they missed an arbitrary deadline coinciding with a hurricane," Nelson wrote to Secretary of State Ken Detzner.

Detzner issued a directive to all 67 counties, advising them that if they are closed on Tuesday, they must accept voter registration forms the first day they reopen. But the directive said the registration deadline will remain midnight Oct. 9. Read Detzner's directive here.

A similar issue arose two years ago during Hurricane Matthew, and U.S. District Judge Mark Walker quickly issued an order extending the voter registration deadline.

Another problem: As the state prepared for the first storm threat of 2018, the emergency web site went dark. People who went to the site saw this message: "There is an issue with FloridaDisaster.org."

The site is a source of essential information on road closings, evacuation routes, power outages, flood zones and county shelter operations.

The site was back up Monday night. But before it happened, Scott, on his official Twitter account, steered Floridians to another site to locate their evacuation zones.

"We're very aware that there are issues. We're fighting diligently," Richard Butgereit, the state's disaster agency chief information officer, said at the briefing. He said that workers are also complaining about the Wi-Fi at the EOC and are bringing in their own wireless devices during a state of emergency.

A state human resources official, Pam Hughes, told the briefing that she anticipated staff shortages at some emergency shelters. 

State emergency management chief Wes Maul praised his troops for a good job, and spoke of tough political days ahead."There's going to be plenty of punches that occur throughout this," Maul said, "but I just want you to keep your head down and keep doing what you do … You guys are the best team in the country."

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