TALLAHASSEE | The week started off with the state — and the nation — mesmerized by Hurricane Harvey. But by Friday, Hurricane Irma sent Florida into a frenzy.
As the colossal storm barreled toward the Sunshine State after wreaking havoc in the Caribbean, officials in South Florida ordered massive evacuations.
Gov. Rick Scott shut down schools throughout the state and pleaded for volunteers.
Panicked evacuees and travelers hogged fuel, water and canned goods, prompting Scott to discourage folks from being greedy gas-wise and leading Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam to remind people about old-fashioned tap water and plastic gallon jugs.
The trajectory of a storm packing a wallop bigger than Hurricane Andrew left Floridians glued to the Weather Channel, where meteorologists appeared at times on the brink of panic as Irma churned toward the Florida Keys.
It’s no surprise that Irma and the state’s response overshadowed other news that otherwise might have been the chatter of the capital city.
An appeals court ruled in favor of a tiny North Florida horse track in a case against state regulators, even if the dispute centered on races that involved “tired, reluctant, skittish or disinterested horses moving at a slow pace down the dust-choked path.”
Florida State University decided to review campus statues, markers and names, while the University of Florida relented in its opposition to a speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer.
Controversies in recent weeks about Confederate monuments, racist speeches and the fates of children brought to the country as immigrants have provided evidence of a divided nation.
But the altruism of strangers helping Harvey victims, and the overwhelming numbers of neighbors banding together in advance of Irma, paint a different picture.
The ancient poet Rumi’s advice rings true today, more than ever, especially when hammered by headlines like “Deadly Irma Takes Aim at Florida.”
“Like a sculptor, if necessary, carve a friend out of stone,” he wrote. “Realize that your inner sight is blind, and try to see a treasure in everyone.”
GET OUT NOW
Scott traveled up, down and across Florida, appearing at county emergency operations centers and on national news shows to urge residents and visitors to take Irma seriously.
Public schools, state colleges and universities and state government offices were shut down across Florida on Friday and will remain closed Monday.
Power outages are expected to be widespread from the storm, which is now forecast to run up the state, initially including three of Florida’s most populous counties.
More than 500,000 people have been ordered to evacuate South Florida, and evacuations are being issued for low-lying areas along both coasts.
“This storm is wider than our entire state. It is expected to cause major and life-threatening impacts from coast to coast,” Scott said Friday while at the South Florida Water Management District headquarters in West Palm Beach. “Remember Hurricane Andrew was one of the worst storms in the history of Florida. Irma is more devastating on its current path.”
Scott advised coastal residents to evacuate immediately after being told to do so and to go inland. He also ordered the mandatory evacuation of seven communities —- South Bay, Lake Harbor, Pahokee, Moore Haven, Clewiston, Belle Glade and Canal Point —- south of Lake Okeechobee.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers anticipates excessive winds will push waters from the lake over the Herbert Hoover Dike. The dike itself isn’t expected to be at risk, Scott said in relaying information from the Army Corps.
With fuel at a premium and gridlock on many major highways, hundreds of thousands of people have already left their homes to go to shelters or to travel to northern Florida or to other states.
“I know many of you are stuck in traffic. I’m sure it’s very frustrating, but please be patient,” Scott said. “Evacuations are not convenient, but they are absolutely meant to keep you safe.”
While Scott’s messages to the public were both urgent and stern, he also encouraged Floridians to show compassion to their neighbors.
“We will get through this together,” he said Friday morning.
Florida State University President John Thrasher announced Tuesday the creation of a panel of students, faculty, staff and alumni to review campus names, markers, statues and other official recognitions.
The Tallahassee campus is home to a number of statues and memorials, including a three-figure monument commemorating the admission of the first African-American students in the 1960s.
Thrasher, who spoke out strongly after white supremacists led a violent clash over a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Va., last month, said he is committed to protecting free speech as well as the safety and well-being of FSU’s students and faculty.
“As we seek to become a more inclusive campus for all, it is essential that we continue to engage in dialogue and inquiry with the entire university community,” Thrasher said about the new panel. “We must continue to examine our history in order to collectively build our future.”
The panel will research the statues, names and other recognitions on campus, seeking comments from various constituencies. The group will also determine the “criteria for appropriate naming policies and, if necessary, recommending an appropriate process for renaming campus recognitions,” according to FSU.
Thrasher’s move came days before the University of Florida set a tentative Oct. 19 date for an appearance by Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, even while decrying the “alt-right” leader’s opinions.
“As a public institution, UF is required by law to make a good faith effort to provide options for a reasonable date, time and campus venue, no matter how much we detest the points of views expressed. As with any event, we also have a responsibility to assess safety and security risks, and will continue to do so until the event,” the university said in a news release Thursday.
Citing security concerns in the aftermath of the deadly Charlottesville event, university President Kent Fuchs last month rejected a request by Spencer to appear Sept. 12 at a campus forum.
But Gary Edinger, a Gainesville First Amendment lawyer, threatened to sue the university on behalf of Spencer, the National Policy Institute, and Cameron Padgett, a Georgia State University student involved in organizing Spencer’s speech.
“This was no doubt a sensitive and difficult issue for the University of Florida, but all citizens should be pleased that the First Amendment was ultimately respected,” Edinger said Thursday.
THE OLD GRAY MARE …
Regulators were wrong to try to punish a tiny North Florida pari-mutuel facility that in 2014 turned to slow-motion, two-horse races as it tried to meet the requirements of its state license, a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Tuesday.
The ruling said the state Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering improperly found Hamilton Downs in violation of its license. The division last year rejected findings of an administrative law judge, who had ruled in favor of the Hamilton County track — but who also described a bizarre scene in which the “races must be seen to be believed.”
“Horses often simply stood at the starting line before slowly plodding down the track,” Administrative Law Judge E. Gary Early wrote last year. “In one instance, a horse actually backed up, until a bystander took it by the lead, thereafter giving the horse a congratulatory slap on the rump when it began to move in a forward direction.”
The legal dispute focused, in part, on the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering’s arguments that Hamilton Downs had violated its license because of a race in which betting could not occur. In that race, both of the horses were owned by the same owner — what is known as a “coupled entry.”
Months after the race occurred, regulators filed a complaint alleging that Hamilton Downs had failed to operate all of the scheduled races in its operating license. But the appeals court said regulators failed to prove a violation because Hamilton Downs had run a race — not just a race with betting allowed.
The court also said track owner Glenn Richards had offered to take steps to resolve concerns that racing officials might have had about the “flag drop” race. But it said officials assured him nothing was wrong, and the race was declared official. The Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering filed the complaint months later.
Hamilton Downs is one of several pari-mutuels across the state that have sought in recent years to add slot machines after voter referendums. Like a track in Gadsden County, it had planned to run controversial barrel races but had to change plans for the 2014 meet after a state rule allowing barrel racing at pari-mutuel facilities was deemed invalid, the appeals court said.
“Resolving that the show must go on, Richards made alternative arrangements,” the ruling said. “He rounded up college students for riders and an elderly herd of untrained horses as their racing steeds. The 2014 meet went off on schedule. Each race consisted of two horses.”