Legislature should focus more on hurricane preparedness: A Tampa Bay Times Editorial

Posted January 7, 2018 6:11 p.m. EST

With the costs of Hurricane Irma still being added up and thousands of insurance claims still awaiting payment, it's no wonder that hurricane response remains on the radar as the Florida Legislature opens its annual session Tuesday. Proposals include ways to improve traffic flow during evacuations, speed up fuel deliveries afterward and ensure nursing home residents' safety. But conspicuously absent are ideas for hardening buildings and infrastructure, which must be part of the state's preparedness for the bigger and stronger storms that are predicted as the climate continues changing.

Hurricane Irma barreled up the state in September, damaging buildings, knocking out power for millions of residents and doing immense damage to agricultural crops. The costs of those impacts are still being calculated and will reach into the billions. The storm, the first major hurricane to strike Florida in more than a decade, also leaves a trail of lessons for both emergency planners and residents.

Irma was a reminder that fuel and water are always in high demand before, during and after storms. One proposal would have the state purchase emergency generators to use at key highway-railroad crossings, and another would use rail lines to speed fuel to impacted areas. Another would require counties to determine how much fuel they need to operate generators for critical infrastructure and first responders for the first 72 hours after a storm. Helping local emergency response teams be prepared is wise, but that doesn't mean the state should micromanage county- and city-level functions. For example, there's no need for lawmakers to establish a prohibition on tree trimming and yard waste and garbage collection ahead of storms.

Some ideas regarding evacuation could have unintended consequences. Rep. Dane Eagle, a Cape Coral Republican, has proposed using passenger trains to get people out of evacuation zones. It sounds good on its face -- moving thousands of people at a time without clogging highways. But how will those people get around after they get off the train? And hurricanes are notorious for shifting tracks right up until they make landfall. In a matter of hours, people who were being moved out of harm's way could wind up directly in a storm's path. Then what?

Hurricane experts and emergency planners don't want everyone to evacuate, anyway. Only residents whose homes are at risk of storm surge are urged to flee. That's why hurricane-safe buildings, higher seawalls and sturdy sewage plants should be higher on lawmakers' priority lists. And after Duke Energy cut its tree-trimming budget for the Tampa Bay area ahead of Irma, which snapped countless limbs and left more than a million Duke customers without power, lawmakers should be drafting requirements for how power companies will better prepare for storm season.

The start of hurricane season each June 1 triggers the onset of uncertainty and dread over how many hurricanes might hit Florida, and how big they might be. Lawmakers are wise to draw on the experiences of 2017 to try to make the state better prepared. But so far, they appear too focused on response and not enough on readiness.

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