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September 14, 2017

Scott surveys damage in Keys as death toll rises

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@PatriciaMazzei

KEY WEST -- Gov. Rick Scott toured the Florida Keys on Wednesday as the extent of the devastation from Hurricane Irma became clearer, with the death toll in the island chain rising to at least eight since Irma hit.

The governor surveyed the damage for the first time on foot, flying into Marathon via helicopter and then stopping at hard-hit Big Pine and Cudjoe Keys before departing from Key West.

None of the dead have been found by search-and-rescue teams, which have been going door-to-door. Monroe County authorities say six deaths have been caused by natural causes and two others directly by the Category 4 storm. Another 40 have been injured, 30 of them in Key West.

Keys officials told the governor the biggest needs are help in getting food, fuel and communications.

In Marathon, Scott dropped in at the Monroe County Emergency Operations Center, where Manager Marty Senterfitt warned him that the county will likely need the federal disaster declaration extended once it expires in 30 days. 

“Let me please emphasize the incredible job you and the president have done,” Senterfitt said. “I feel almost embarrassed to be asking for more.”

More here.

Photo credit: Alan Diaz, Associated Press

National Guard in Florida Keys: ‘We’re in here for the long haul’

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@PatriciaMazzei

ALONG OVERSEAS HIGHWAY -- For Hurricane Irma’s victims, help comes in darkness.

Under a reddish half moon, 12 Army National Guard trucks rode across the Florida Keys.

The night hides the worst of the destruction.

The rotten stench of standing seawater gives it away.

They’ve come from all over the state, these busloads of soldiers, to bring food and water to the hardy — and perhaps foolhardy — few who stayed on the Keys while Irma unleashed her fury. And, most importantly they’ve brought themselves — strapping men ready to keep the peace, for as long as it takes.

Up to 30 days, their initial orders said. The Keys need them.

The Florida Guard has moved into Irma’s disaster zone, where functioning power outlets are rare, communications spotty and flushing toilets nonexistent. A Miami Herald reporter embedded with a convoy, which left Broward County on Tuesday night and arrived in the Middle Keys on Wednesday morning, to witness the massive logistical operation to slowly make the islands habitable again.

“Man,” one soldier said when the sun rose over Marathon. “It looks like a bomb went off here.”

More here.

Photo credit: Al Diaz, Miami Herald staff

September 13, 2017

Democrats plot their Haiti strategy as TPS deadline looms

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@alextdaugherty 

A half dozen Democratic lawmakers met with Haiti’s ambassador in an intimate dinner on Tuesday night to craft a new strategy aimed at convincing the White House to extend a temporary program set to expire in January 2018 that allows thousands of Haitians to work and live in the U.S.

Over rum punch and pikliz, the Democrats said it’s time to tie what’s known as TPS for Haiti to recent activism over DACA, an executive order signed by Barack Obama that gave protections to undocumented young people brought to the U.S. as minors.

“We have to create the atmosphere where the man in the Oval Office says ‘I’m considering it,’” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said at the dinner.

Creating the atmosphere won’t come from signing letters or talking with administration officials about humanitarian concerns in Haiti. Instead, Democrats argue that repeatedly bringing up TPS during every DACA protest and getting business leaders to realize the disruption to labor markets if 58,000 Haitians are required to leave will increase public pressure on Trump to grant the TPS extension.

“If all the Haitian workers at Fort Lauderdale International Airport left tomorrow, they would have the messiest bathrooms of any airport, even messier than LaGuardia,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.
 
Hastings and Jackson Lee said that widespread outrage from Democrats—and business leaders—over President Donald Trump’s decision to end DACA last week created a massive amount of public pressure. Trump indicated over Twitter after the decision to end DACA was announced that he would “revisit” DACA if Congress is unable to draft and pass a legislative fix that would keep those young people from being deported.
 
The TPS program is administered by the Homeland Security Department and allows foreign nationals already in the United States from 10 countries to stay in the United States for a designated period of time. TPS was granted to Haiti in 2011 after a massive 2010 earthquake.

When Haiti’s TPS was up for renewal in May, Democrats asked then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to show “compassion.”

Kelly ultimately decided to extend Haiti’s status, but only for six months instead of the usual 18. He also said Haitians “need to start thinking about returning.”

“It’s all or nothing at this point given the time frame, the consequences, if nothing happens between now and November,” ambassador Paul Altidor said. “We’re trying to ensure that as many people from Capitol Hill, from either side of the aisle, are involved in this, and we’ve seen that from members of the Florida delegation.”

One Florida Republican, Rep. Brian Mast, was scheduled to attend Tuesday’s dinner but was unable, due to Hurricane Irma. His office confirmed to Miami Herald that he is in favor of extending Haiti’s TPS status by 18 months.

Mast joins Miami Republicans Marco Rubio, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart, who all signed a letter in March urging Kelly to extend Haiti’s TPS status.

Tuesday’s dinner was organized by Altidor and Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., a longtime proponent of extending Haiti’s TPS status.

“We’re going to go to whomever we need to make the case,” Clarke said, adding that bringing TPS into the larger DACA debate will help combat the spread of misinformation, such as false reports that Canada was offering free residency to Haitians in the United States.

Read more here.

Oil sanctions against Venezuela less likely after Harvey and Irma, sources say

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via @FrancoOrdonez

The White House has now tabled, at least temporarily, any discussion of oil sanctions against Venezuela, due in part to worries that cutting fuel supplies would only hurt Americans struggling after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, according to two sources familiar with the planning.

“The White House is eager to tighten the noose on Maduro, but not at the expense of American motorists,” said a former National Security Council official familiar with the planning.

According to a senior administration official, Trump’s team wants see how the last round of sanctions affects Caracas. And before moving on oil sanctions, that official said Washington also would need to determine how such a punishment would hurt the U.S. oil industry and gasoline consumers, still reeling from Harvey and Irma.“We’re tracking it of course,” said the senior administration official of the hurricanes’ effect on oil supplies. “What we’ll have to watch is how the refineries in the region respond to any damage and destruction. What that does as far as oil prices for the United States.”

The United States escalated its pressure on Venezuela last month with the toughest set of penalties since President Nicolás Maduro engineered a vote for a new constituent assembly that stripped democratically elected lawmakers of their power.

The last set of sanctions blocked Venezuela’s ability to borrow money from American creditors. They also banned its state oil company’s U.S. subsidiary, Citgo, from sending dividends back to Venezuela.

The Trump administration has promised to continue ratcheting up the pressure on Caracas until the Venezuelan government restores some democratic institutions. Aides have provided President Donald Trump with an “escalatory road map” that outlines options, including more individual sanctions and measures meant to strangle Venezuela’s economy. These are seen inside the administration as maneuvers that can be taken one-by-one until Washington sees evidence that Maduro is complying with demands from neighbors in the hemisphere.

“We’re not content where things are in Venezuela,” the senior administration official said. “Our policy objective here is to restore democracy. We’ve made that clear.”

But Trump, so far, has stopped short of applying the so-called “nuclear option” – oil sanctions – that could starve the oil-dependent Caracas government of desperately needed cash during a spiraling economic and humanitarian crisis.

That is partly because White House officials simply want to give the latest round of sanctions time to hurt Maduro. They are watching particularly closely whether Venezuela can meet a looming deadline to pay off some $4 billion in debt, a sum that Caracas does not have in liquid assets.

“There is no reason to act right now,” said one economic consultant familiar with White House plans.

Harvey and Irma — and their impact on the U.S. oil industry and gas prices facing consumers — served mostly to reinforce the feeling inside the administration that now is not the time to apply oil sanctions.

Read more here.

Irma is just the beginning, Sandy victims warn Floridians

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@alextdaugherty 

In 2011, The National Flood Insurance Program told Claudette D’Arrigo that her Highlands, New Jersey home was structurally sound after Hurricane Irene.

When Superstorm Sandy hit 13 months later and caused her home to flood, it was a different story.

The nation’s government-run flood insurance program, which ensures 1.7 million homeowners in Florida, determined that she had 20 years of earth erosion under her home, which meant she wasn’t eligible for an insurance payout.

After submitting her 2011 document three times and contacting New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez failed to result in a payout, D’Arrigo filed an appeal in April 2015. Her appeal was heard in January 2017 and she received her payout in August 2017.

“It was a low offer, but I accepted the offer because we needed to move on,” D’Arrigo said. “That is the process that will happen to everyone in Houston and everyone in Florida. It was a five-year wait for us to receive our money.”

As Florida and Texas begin cleanup from Hurricane Irma, New Jersey and New York homeowners who endured flooding from Superstorm Sandy five years ago are urging Congress to overhaul the nation’s flood insurance program. They want greater protections from fraud while allowing private insurers to enter the market to avoid the delays after Superstorm Sandy.

“The current program needs to be reformed,” said New Jersey Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur, who represents a stretch of coastal New Jersey damaged by Sandy. “I hear from a lot of people who paid premiums for decades and now they are getting treated in a way that no private insurer could ever treat people without being called to account. What’s the difference? You can sue your private insurance company.”

Key West resident Lee Cummings, a 69-year-old who spends his summers in the Washington, D.C. area, is worried that the delays after Sandy will also happen to people flooded by Irma after hearing D’Arrigo speak.

“They seem pretty certain that the storm is stage one and the real battle is stage two,” Cummings said. “I certainly hope that’s not true.”

Cummings, who said he used satellite maps to see that his Key West house still has its roof after Irma, has no idea if flood waters damaged his property.


Read more here.

Miami native Mercedes Schlapp named White House senior communications advisor

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@alextdaugherty

Mercedes Schlapp, a Cuban-American Miami native and conservative commentator and columnist, was named senior White House communications advisor on Tuesday, as longtime Donald Trump aide Hope Hicks was promoted to the position of White House communications director. 

Schlapp, a longtime Washington resident, is the daughter of a Cuban political prisoner and wife of American Conservative Union leader Matt Schlapp. She also appeared regularly on Fox News and penned a column in the Washington Times. 

"Honored to serve Donald Trump and the nation," Schlapp said on Twitter. 

Schlapp joins a White House communications staff that was in flux after the departures of press secretary Sean Spicer, chief of staff Reince Priebus and communications director Anthony Scaramucci, though Tuesday's announcement appears to continue a shift within the White House under new chief of staff and former Southcom commander Gen. John Kelly to a staff filled with people who have experience in Washington. 

Before working as a media commentator, Schlapp worked in the George W. Bush administration. 

September 12, 2017

Florida presses for federal dollars after Irma, but budget hawks resist

Middle Key Boat Block

@alextdaugherty

Many members of Florida’s congressional delegation couldn’t be in Washington for votes on Tuesday, as the state began a massive cleanup after Hurricane Irma. But that hasn’t stopped them from pressing colleagues who were spared Irma’s wrath to join in their quest for federal help.

Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the only member from Florida in office when Hurricane Andrew made landfall 25 years ago, is urging Washington to treat her state as it did Texas just a week ago.

Carlos Curbelo and I are determined to go back to D.C. and work with our colleagues to find the funds needed for the hurricane relief efforts,” Ros-Lehtinen said at a press conference. “We found it for Hurricane Harvey, we're going to band together and find it for the residents who are survivors of Hurricane Irma.”

But efforts to spend billions on hurricane relief will likely meet resistance from conservative Republicans who bristle at any new spending that doesn’t include corresponding cuts elsewhere. For them, Florida’s storm damage is a secondary concern to the long-term consequences of increasing the federal deficit.

“The unsustainable national debt remains the greatest existential threat to our nation that is routinely ignored in Washington,” said Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling in a statement. “Emergency funding should not come to the House without an opportunity to propose offsets, a number of which can easily be found in President Trump’s budget.”

Last week, Hensarling, along with 106 Republicans in the House and Senate, voted against a $15.25 billion Hurricane Harvey relief bill that was coupled with an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling and a measure to keep the government funded for a short period, signaling that a faction of conservatives will likely vote against billions in Irma relief if they deem the money isn’t directly related to storm recovery.

“The extremists in the Republican conference who somehow think we should be offsetting the cost of an emergency don’t understand the concept of an emergency,” Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said. “ It was the largest storm to hit the state in modern times. We are going to need significant relief and recovery.”

But despite the opposition, Miami-Dade’s congressional delegation, including Ros-Lehtinen, Curbelo, Wasserman Schultz, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Rep. Frederica Wilson, and Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson are united in getting attention, and funding, for Florida.

“I spoke to Speaker Ryan last night and we were talking about how we have to get FEMA funded,” Wasserman Schultz said. “There’s no question that we’re going to need an emergency supplemental. He’s already put people on notice.”

Wasserman Schultz said it’s impossible to even ballpark how much money Florida will need from the federal government. The cleanup is just beginning, and the immediate priorities are restoring power and getting fuel into the state. Those efforts don’t require additional funding from Congress.

Nelson and Rubio have teamed up for a variety of press conferences and events before and after the storm, notably a flyover of the Florida Keys with Coast Guard personnel on Monday to view the damage and recovery efforts.

Read more here.

Donald, Melania Trump to visit Florida on Thursday

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@alextdaugherty

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump will visit Florida on Thursday to view damage from Hurricane Irma. 

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made the announcement at Tuesday's White House press briefing. 

Sanders told reporters that details on Trump's visit are forthcoming. 

 

Is Scott's standard approach - restricting flow of info, tamping down bad news - good for emergencies?

EOC Sept. 11 IrmaFloridians aren’t just facing a traffic bottleneck as they attempt to return home after mandatory evacuations from the storm, they are also craving information as Gov. Rick Scott’s office tightly controls the flow of developments and delays the release of bad news.

How many search and rescue operations had been conducted by state teams? Which roads are closed or blocked due to flooding? Which gas stations received a state highway patrol escort to receive gas? Which evacuation routes are facing fuel shortages? Which assisted living facilities were evacuated because of no generators?

State officials acknowledged Monday they track this data, but they wouldn’t make it available to the public. Story here. 

Photo: The Florida Emergency Operations Center on Monday, Sept. 11, as seen through the media room.  For the first time since the room was built for media access, reporters have been excluded from hearing the daily briefing reports of state emergency managers. The governor's office says they are protecting "military movements."

Curbelo says no evacuation for 10,000 residents left in Florida Keys, Rubio wants potential evacuation (Updated)

Key West Tree Down 2

@alextdaugherty

Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who represents the Florida Keys in Washington, said there will not be an additional evacuation in the Florida Keys due to damage from Hurricane Irma. 

"There are no plans for a complete evacuation of the #FLKeys," Curbelo tweeted on Tuesday morning. "Local authorities are working hard to get people back IN as soon as possible." 

On Monday afternoon, the Department of Defense announced in a press release that the 10,000 people who stayed on the Keys during Irma may need to be evacuated until power and running water can be restored. 

"The main water line into the Florida Keys is reported off-line. Damage to the Keys may necessitate evacuation of the 10,000 persons who did not evacuate prior to the storm." the release said. 

Keys residents who chose to evacuate were not allowed back in on Monday, prompting frustration from some people who were trying to reach their homes. 

"The Florida Keys is going to need a lot of help and we're blessed to have a wonderful governor and a very effective administrator at FEMA who is well aware of what the situation on the ground is starting to look like," Curbelo said. 

UPDATE (11:25am) 

Sen. Marco Rubio, who joined Curbelo on an aerial tour of storm damage on the Florida Keys on Monday, said in a tweet that he would ask officials to consider an evacuation of the Lower Keys due to a lack of water and road access.

"Asking officials to consider evacuation of lower . No water, no energy & poor access is recipe for big problems," Rubio tweeted. 

UPDATE (12:28pm)

Monroe County, which encompasses the Florida Keys, said in a statement that an additional evacuation will not happen and that reports from the Department of Defense suggesting otherwise are "NOT TRUE." 

UPDATE (1:28pm)

Rubio said he spoke to the Monroe County administrator who informed him that an additional evacuation will not be necessary.