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September 08, 2017

Rubio asks FEMA to prioritize debris removal from Florida roads

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@alextdaugherty 

Sen. Marco Rubio is concerned that debris from Hurricane Irma will clog roads in Florida, and he sent a letter to FEMA administrator William Long on Friday to urge the federal government to prioritize debris removal on roads after the storm passes through. 

"Local leaders and I are particularly concerned about debris removal on county, state and private roads that serve as crucial access points to hospitals and serve as important conduits to aide those in need, or who need to evacuate post-storm," Rubio said in a letter obtained by the Miami Herald. "These must be clear so that emergency services and utility repair crews are able to do their jobs. Also, the storm is a significant threat to Florida’s numerous inland and coastal bridges, which may be rendered impassable following the storm, cutting off residents from life-saving assistance and recovery resources. I urge your agency to work with the state of Florida to rapidly assess the connectivity of Florida’s road networks after the storm has passed and ensure that these residents are identified and assisted as quickly as possible." 

Rubio spent Thursday in Miami meeting with local officials and preparing his home for Irma. He missed a Senate vote on a $15 billion hurricane relief bill that also raises the nation's debt ceiling. The bill was devised after Donald Trump cut a deal with Democratic leaders. 

Rubio was opposed to the deal but said he would have voted in favor of the bill to keep FEMA afloat as it prepares for Irma. 

Read the letter below: 

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Florida Republican calls hurricane funding bill "generational theft"

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@alextdaugherty

Florida Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach and Ted Yoho of Gainesville voted against a $15 billion hurricane relief package on Friday despite calls from South Florida lawmakers to support increased FEMA funding as Hurricane Irma threatens Florida. 

The relief package was part of a deal between President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders to raise the nation's debt ceiling for three months and temporarily fund the government through December. 

Gaetz bristled at the spending package, calling it "generational theft." 

"Only Congress can find a way to turn a natural disaster into a trillion new dollars in spending authority," Gaetz said. "I have a pretty strident view that I will only vote to raise the debt limit if that vote is accompanied with reductions in entitlement spending. If conservatives don’t start voting no against debt limit increases all the FEMA in the world won’t save us from our must unfortunate destiny."

Gaetz and Yoho did vote in favor of a standalone $7.5 hurricane relief bill on Wednesday, which passed the House with only three no votes. Gaetz represents a conservative-leaning district on the western part of Florida's panhandle, an area of the state less likely to be heavily damaged by Irma. 

The House passed the spending bill with the $15 billion in hurricane relief by a 316-90 vote. All 90 no votes were Republicans. 

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin huddled with Republican lawmakers before the vote and urged them to "vote for the debt ceiling for me." 

"Ha. He's not one of my constituents," Yoho said to the Associated Press. 

Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also urged the House to vote in favor of the bill, circulating a dear colleague letter on Thursday evening ahead of the vote. 

"As Hurricane Irma approaches Florida, I would ask that all my Congressional colleagues reflect on the fate of Florida’s 20.61 million residents when they are asked to again vote on this vital emergency disaster funding as it comes back from the Senate," Ros-Lehtinen said. 

Three Florida Republicans, Reps. Tom Rooney, Francis Rooney and Brian Mast, and every Florida Democrat left in Washington voted in favor of the bill while 11 Florida Republicans were not present as they left Washington to prepare for Irma. 

Sen. Marco Rubio said Thursday after the U.S. Senate passed the hurricane relief bill by an 80-17 margin that he would have voted in favor even though he had "significant reservations." Rubio was in Miami preparing for Irma.

"I strongly disagree with the decision made by the administration to agree to pair funding for FEMA and emergency disaster relief to short-term extensions to the continuing resolution, the debt ceiling and the National Flood Insurance Program unaccompanied by significant reforms," Rubio said in a statement. "Absent extenuating circumstances such as the outbreak of the Zika virus last year, I have consistently opposed passage of short term continuing resolutions, because they are an incredibly inefficient way of spending taxpayer dollars and fails to provide the certainty required for effective planning." 

But Rubio said the need to keep FEMA afloat would have led him to vote yes despite his objections. 

Gaetz felt differently. 

"The federal government has a significant role to play in disaster relief, and I support that role, but we didn’t have to authorize over 1 trillion in new spending to help hurricane victims," Gaetz said. "That was Washington using a crisis to feed its addiction to spending." 

 

Hurricane Irma is forcing Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate to evacuate

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@NickNehamas

President Donald Trump’s seaside Mar-a-Lago resort has been ordered to evacuate because of Hurricane Irma, along with the barrier islands and low-lying areas of Palm Beach County.

About 125,000 Palm Beach residents are being told to leave starting Friday at 10 a.m., according to the Sun Sentinel. All of Florida is under a state of emergency, with evacuation orders also issued in Miami-DadeBroward and Monroe counties.

Trump has returned repeatedly to the private club — which he bought in 1985 — to relax and conduct state business since becoming president. Initiation fees were raised to $200,000 after his election.

Category 5 Irma is expected to arrive in South Florida starting Saturday.

Mar-a-Lago, which overlooks the ocean on Palm Beach, was built in 1927. Summer is the slow tourist season in South Florida.

"We are closely monitoring Hurricane Irma," a Trump Organization spokesperson told CNN on Wednesday. "Our teams at the Trump properties in Florida are taking all of the proper precautions and following local and Florida State Advisories very closely to ensure that everyone is kept safe and secure. We continue to send our thoughts and prayers to victims of Hurricane Harvey and are praying for those that are in the path of Hurricane Irma."

Trump also owns three golf courses in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, as well as an 11-bedroom mansion on the French side of the Carribean island of St. Martin.

Widespread devastation was reported on St. Martin after Irma swept through. Authorities on Wednesday said at least four people were killed and 50 injured. The hurricane destroyed 95 percent of buildings on the island, according to AFP.

“We know that the four most solid buildings on the island have been destroyed,” said French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb, “which means that more rustic structures have probably been completely or partially destroyed.”

Read more here. 

Before evacuating, Latvala raises money -- and questions storm strategy

Like many of his Tampa Bay constituents, state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater lives in a flood-prone evacuation zone. Ordered out Friday, he’s headed north to Tallahassee.

Before leaving, the Senate budget chairman held a kickoff fund-raiser for his campaign for governor Thursday at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater -- also in an evacuation zone.

The fund-raiser was scheduled weeks ago, and Latvala noted that the weather was fine Thursday. “The sky is blue,” he said. “It‘s just another day over here in Pinellas County.”

JackFacebookAfter some thought, Latvala told supporters in a Facebook post (left) that the event was still on. He went further in a Times/Herald interview, suggesting that officials were overreacting by ordering mass evacuations of coastal areas -- including in Pinellas County.

“I have lived in Florida for 50 years. We have hurricane season every year. We try to use good judgment,” Latvala said. ”I’m not sure that we haven’t overdone it a little bit ... Do you have to close down the state four days before the storm gets here?”

He said he has heard from constituents asking him, “Why are we doing this so early?”

Latvala said he spoke with Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, and did not take issue with law enforcement officials who do not want to be second-guessed for not telling people to flee low-lying coastal areas well in advance of Irma’s arrival.

He stopped short of criticizing Gov. Rick Scott. ”The governor is doing his job as he sees the need to do it,” Latvala said. “I think he‘s being a little ...” he paused and said: “cautious.”

After Hurricane Irma tears through the state this weekend, the need for help will be overwhelming. The Legislature will face many demands to take swift action to help rebuild the damage and help Floridians process insurance claims. The state’s short- and long-term responses to this potential disaster will likely be a major issue in the 2018 elections.

As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Latvala will be front and center for all those decisions, and if he’s elected governor, he’ll be in charge of all of Florida’s emergency management apparatus.

Latvala’s rival for the GOP nomination, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, declined to comment on Latvala’s decision to hold a campaign fund-raiser while mass evacuations were underway in Tampa Bay and elsewhere. Putnam has suspended campaigning and visited Polk County’s hurricane center Thursday.

September 07, 2017

Miami's politicians navigate Hurricane Irma, for better or worse

 

@NewsbySmiley

South Florida’s mayors handled their business in different ways Thursday as Hurricane Irma inched closer.

From the county’s emergency operations center in Doral, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez expanded evacuation orders for tens of thousands of residents. On Miami Beach, Philip Levine gave cable news interviews warning about the deadly consequences of a “nuclear” storm. And in an airport in Buenos Aires, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado waited for a return flight to South Florida after leaving for business in Argentina over the weekend rather than waiting out a major storm with an uncertain path.

In a region where hurricanes are a constant threat, the delicate dance around preparing for a storm and recovering afterward has been done by politicians for decades. But throw in the potential for catastrophic damage — and deliver the hurricane to South Florida’s doorstep late during a local election year — and every decision becomes magnified as politicos hold press conferences, court voters with toilet paper and canned goods, and make what could literally be life-or-death decisions.

Make the right moves and look like a leader. Make the wrong moves and open yourself up to endless criticism.

To read the rest, click here.

‘Unprecedented’ evacuations set as Irma takes aim at South Florida

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@PatriciaMazzei @ByKristenMClark @doug_hanks

Just how catastrophic South Florida leaders fear Hurricane Irma could be became evident Thursday when Miami-Dade County ordered an evacuation the mayor called “unprecedented,” as hope diminished that the Category 5 beast would somehow avoid us.

“We have to prepare for the worst,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez said moments after instructing more than 650,000 people to get out.

His decision, announced after a lengthy internal analysis of flood maps and projections of potentially deadly storm surge, made the National Hurricane Center’s Thursday forecasts finally sink in: Irma is set to hit the Florida peninsula directly, though exactly where continues to be uncertain.

Increasingly grim-faced emergency managers across the state did not hesitate. Evacuations extended from the Florida Keys to Palm Beach and beyond, as counties along Florida’s east coast eyed the storm’s projected path north. Even Georgia required its coastal residents to leave.

In the middle of it all were frantic residents trying to figure out if the orders applied to themor their loved ones — and how far they might have to go to heed them. Some decided to go before it was too late. 

“I think this is going to be a catastrophe,” said David Kelsey, a South Beach resident who waited for a county school bus to shuttle him and other seniors to shelters on the mainland. He walked to Rebecca Towers, two bayfront senior housing buildings south of Fifth Street. “I think there is going to be devastation.”

More here.

Photo credit: C.M. Guerrero, el Nuevo Herald

Donald Trump will appoint Pam Bondi to a presidential commission addressing the opioid crisis

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@alextdaugherty

Donald Trump announced Thursday that he will appoint Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a political ally, to the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. The appointment was first reported in March but made official on Thursday, the White House said.

Trump gave Bondi a $25,000 political contribution in 2013, setting off controversy when Trump launched his presidential bid that Trump's contribution steered Bondi's office away from an investigation into Trump University. Bondi was a vocal surrogate for Trump on the campaign trail as he narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton in Florida. 

"“I’ve just known Pam Bondi for years,” Trump told reporters during the campaign. “I have a lot of respect for her.”

Trump signed an executive order establishing the opioid commission in March. The commission is chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and includes Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper

"Governor Christie will be instrumental in researching how best to combat this serious epidemic and how to treat those it has affected," Trump said in a statement when the commission was launched. "He will work with people on both sides of the aisle to find the best ways for the Federal Government to treat and protect the American people from this serious problem. This is an epidemic that knows no boundaries and shows no mercy, and we will show great compassion and resolve as we work together on this important issue."

The Christie-led committee missed two deadlines to issue an interim report over the summer, and asked the President to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency when it released its initial report in August. 

"Your declaration would empower your cabinet to take bold steps and would force Congress to focus on funding and empowering the Executive Branch even further to deal with
this loss of life," the report said. "It would also awaken every American to this simple fact: if this scourge has not found you or your family yet, without bold action by everyone, it soon will."

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen urges Congress to vote in favor of $15 billion hurricane relief bill

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@alextdaugherty

Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is urging her colleagues in the House of Representatives to vote in favor of a $15 billion hurricane relief bill passed by the U.S. Senate on Thursday. 

"As Hurricane Irma approaches Florida, I would ask that all my Congressional colleagues reflect on the fate of Florida’s 20.61 million residents when they are asked to again vote on this vital emergency disaster funding as it comes back from the Senate," Ros-Lehtinen said in a dear colleague letter to the House of Representatives. 

The House of Representatives passed a $7.85 billion Harvey relief bill by a nearly unanimous vote on Wednesday, but the Senate bill gives nearly double the funding and would give FEMA more time to respond to Harvey and Irma before it runs out of money.

The Senate bill is part of a larger deal by President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders which ties hurricane funding to a short-term increase in the nation's debt ceiling. A number of conservative Republicans voted against the Senate bill because they opposed the deal, but Sen. Marco Rubio would have voted in favor of the bill because it provided essential FEMA funding even though he also opposed the deal. He was not present for the vote on Thursday because he was in Miami preparing for the storm. 

"I urge all of my Congressional colleagues to please vote in favor of vital funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and allow the agency to continue to plan, prepare and respond to the looming disaster presented by Hurricane Irma," Ros-Lehtinen said.

Ros-Lehtinen and her South Florida colleagues likely won't be on hand for a House vote on hurricane relief, as they are in Miami preparing for the storm. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens, was the only member of Miami-Dade's congressional delegation present for votes on Thursday. 

 

Rubio would have grudgingly voted for a $15 billion hurricane relief bill, but he was in Miami preparing for Irma

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@alextdaugherty 

The U.S. Senate passed a $15 billion Hurricane Harvey disaster relief bill on Thursday, but Marco Rubio wasn't there. 

He was in Miami preparing for Hurricane Irma and meeting with local officials. 

Hours after the bill passed on Thursday, Rubio issued a statement explaining that he would have voted in favor of the package even though he had "significant reservations." 

“Today, I am in West Miami, which is now under a watch for Hurricane Irma and currently projected to take a direct hit from this Category 5 storm," Rubio said in a statement. "Tropical Storm conditions are expected in South Florida less than 48 hours after the time of today’s vote, and I am using this crucial time to safely secure my home, my mother’s home and otherwise prepare my family to face the brunt and the aftermath of a potentially catastrophic storm. If I had been able to participate in today’s Senate vote in Washington, I would have voted to approve the supplemental package before the Senate. But my vote would come despite significant reservations about some of the other items attached to this legislation."

Rubio's vote wasn't critical, the measure passed with an overwhelming 80-17 vote. A number of conservative Republicans, most from non-coastal states, voted against it. 

The Harvey relief bill, which helps to fund FEMA as it runs out of money, was tied to an increase in the nation's debt ceiling and the National Flood Insurance Program after Donald Trump cut a deal with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday. 

Rubio opposed the deal. 

"I strongly disagree with the decision made by the administration to agree to pair funding for FEMA and emergency disaster relief to short-term extensions to the continuing resolution, the debt ceiling and the National Flood Insurance Program unaccompanied by significant reforms," Rubio said. "Absent extenuating circumstances such as the outbreak of the Zika virus last year, I have consistently opposed passage of short term continuing resolutions, because they are an incredibly inefficient way of spending taxpayer dollars and fails to provide the certainty required for effective planning. Additionally, I am frustrated Congress has once again temporarily reauthorized the outdated National Flood Insurance Program without enacting a long-term solution that provides much-needed improvements for the people of Florida and places this vital program on a sustainable path for the future." 

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson voted in favor of the proposal. Texas Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn also voted in favor, even though Cruz has been a vocal critic of raising the nation's debt ceiling in the past, as Texas faces a massive recovery effort from Hurricane Harvey. 

"Given that Texas continues to recover from the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Harvey and that the state of Florida is facing the most powerful Atlantic storm ever recorded, I have no choice but to support this measure," Rubio said. "Nevertheless, I consider the manner in which this measure was structured, linking emergency disaster relief for victims in need of immediate assistance with other controversial measures we still have time to debate through regular order, to be among the most politically cynical efforts I have ever witnessed."

 

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen calls for extending TPS to Caribbean countries hit by Hurricane Irma (updated)

Dominican Republic Hurrican Irma

@alextdaugherty 

Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen  joined a top Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee on calling for the Department of Homeland Security to extend Temporary Protected Status to Caribbean countries hit by Hurricane Irma. 

"I support extending TPS to the folks living in the U.S. who are from nations impacted by Hurricane Irma," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. "For them to go back to their areas that have been devastated by Irma would not be constructive because the infrastructure is not able to sustain the economy. Jobs would be impossible for them to get and if they are granted TPS here, they can earn a living and pay taxes to help our economy."

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., also issued a statement on Thursday expressing support for allowing Caribbean citizens from places in Irma's wake to temporarily stay in the United States.  

“I am heartbroken by the loss of life and damage caused by Hurricane Irma, even as the storm still churns toward the United States mainland," Engel said in a statement. "Images from the island of Barbuda—reportedly no longer habitable—are especially haunting. I urge the Trump Administration to assist our friends in the Caribbean and Puerto Rico with all available resources. In particular, the Administration must provide Temporary Protected Status to Caribbean citizens who lived directly in Irma’s destructive path but are currently residing in the United States and unable to return to their home countries. I plan to lead efforts to ensure that this happens. Congress must also get to work to make sure any needed disaster relief assistance is quickly appropriated for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean region where Irma did heavy damage." 

The TPS program allows foreign nationals already in the United States from 10 countries to stay in the United States for a designated period of time. President Donald Trump, who continues to espouse a tough-on-immigration line, hasn’t indicated that he’s open to extending the program to another country.

One of the 10 countries on the TPS list, Haiti, lies within Irma's path. Other countries impacted by Irma include Antigua and Barbuda and the Dominican Republic, along with overseas territories of the UK, France and the Netherlands. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were also impacted by Irma, though residents there are U.S. citizens and not subject to TPS. 

Engel cited a 2016 law he co-authored with Ros-Lehtinen as justification for extending TPS to the Caribbean. 

“Earlier this year, the State Department and USAID released the U.S. Strategy for Engagement in the Caribbean, mandated by a law that I authored with Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen," Engel said in a statement. "This strategy promises renewed engagement with the region and strengthened resilience against natural disasters. I urge the Administration to move quickly to respond to Hurricane Irma and then support the Caribbean in preparing for future emergencies."