TALLAHASSEE | Requiring nursing homes to have adequate backup power, blocking storm-damaged properties from being rebuilt in “high-risk” areas, and looking into changes in highway traffic flow during evacuations are among hurricane proposals that moved forward Tuesday in a Florida House select committee.
The House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness advanced 78 recommendations — one was added Tuesday involving incentives for parking-garage owners who open their facilities during storms — from out of 161 proposals panel members had suggested following a series of hearings last year.
The recommendations focused on Hurricane Irma recovery, the impact on Florida of people fleeing Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and how to better prepare for future storms. They will be distributed to various committees and subcommittees to determine the potential impacts on the next state budget as ideas are converted into bills.
Committee Chairwoman Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami, whittled down the list of proposals and called them a “starting point” for short-term and long-term measures.
The recommendations touch on evacuations, debris removal, housing, utilities, shelters, the state budget and the agriculture industry, which suffered an estimated $2.5 billion in losses from Irma, a Category 4 storm that pounded the state Sept. 10 and 11 and left 84 dead.
One of the highest-profile incidents in the storm involved the deaths of residents at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, a Broward County nursing home where the air-conditioning system was knocked out by Irma. A number of the House recommendations are focused on nursing homes.
Among them is a proposal that would exempt from sales taxes the purchase of gas generators costing up to $30,000. Other proposals included requiring facilities to address staffing as part of emergency plans and requiring staff training that includes an annual facility-wide evacuation drill.
Meanwhile, committee member Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, questioned a lack of specific recommendations about underground power lines.
“While certainly flooding risks may increase the problems associated with restoring our electric grid, the truth is … those communities that have underground electric cables already, they didn’t experience the loss of power that other communities did,” Jacobs said.
A recommendation would direct the Public Service Commission to study the costs and feasibility of storm-hardening measures for the electric power grid, which Nunez said could include underground power lines.
With millions of Floridians leaving their homes during Irma, evacuation issues also have been high-profile.
A recommendation to require tests of converting portions of highways into all one-way traffic, a process known as “contraflow,” was included, despite Department of Transportation Secretary Michael Dew telling committee members in October that too many safety impediments would be involved.
Dew told the committee that contraflow would require increased law enforcement at each interchange, limit the ability of relief operations and fuel trucks to travel into impacted areas and cause backups where lanes merge as the contraflow comes to an end.
Nunez told reporters Tuesday after the meeting the recommendation was included to get the agency to get “outside of their comfort box.”
“If you don’t practice it, I don’t think you’ll ever be good at it,” Nunez said.
Committee members also want the Department of Transportation to study the feasibility of strategically locating petroleum depots to help address issues with potential fuel shortages during storms.
Delays in debris removal also were a problem in many communities through the state. Another House proposal calls for statewide timelines to stop tree trimming and garbage collection before storms are expected to strike as a way to give waste-management employees time to prepare vehicles and landfills.
Price tags have yet to be placed on most of the House proposals.
One potentially costly idea would involve identifying areas where rebuilding after a disaster may be high-risk. The state could consider options such as buying the properties and using them to create additional open space and natural buffers.
Another potentially expensive proposal could be extending the Suncoast Parkway out of the Tampa Bay area north to Georgia as another evacuation route.
“We tried to balance some of the short-term needs alongside the long-term recommendations, not only because of the fiscal considerations, but also because a lot of those things are going to take time,” Nunez said.
Among the other proposals:
• Require the Division of Emergency Management to develop and implement a web-based system to provide live information about evacuation routes and destinations.
• As additional passenger rail service becomes available, incorporate its use to help in evacuations.
• Consider financial assistance to school systems for purchasing generators for buildings that serve as shelters.
• Look at incentives for local communities to purchase and redevelop mobile-home parks destroyed in storms. The parks could be developed into affordable housing that meets building codes.
• Use railroads to transport fuel before and after storms.
• Create a reserve fund for future hurricanes.
• Create a disaster preparedness sales-tax “holiday.”
• Require qualified sign-language interpreters in televised broadcasts about weather emergencies.