Fixes planned before next storm hits

From improving shelters to streamlining insurance, lawmakers are hurrying.

Published March 6, 2005

PENSACOLA - Liz Brooks has grown accustomed to the water trickling down the walls of her two-story home and the leaks that plop from the ceiling each time it rains.

Since Hurricane Ivan swept through her neighborhood in Navarre, a small coastal town just east of Pensacola, Brooks has learned to live with mold in the vents and bare plywood floors after she and her husband ripped away rotting carpet. Phone calls to her insurance agency - 59 and counting - are part of her daily routine.

The scary part is not knowing if life will ever return to normal.

"There's definitely an emotional toll," said Brooks, 47, who started seeing a psychiatrist to deal with the stress. "You just can't get away from it, no matter where you go. I cry about it weekly."

Last year's quartet of hurricanes disrupted millions of lives throughout Florida. Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne killed 117 people and caused more than $17-billion in insured losses.

Insurers have settled more than 90 percent of claims. Power has been restored and debris hauled away.

But the effects linger for those in the hardest-hit areas of the state.

State lawmakers have responded with a flurry of bills aimed at improving emergency shelters, streamlining insurance policies, strengthening building codes, discouraging looting and giving consumers a tax break on hurricane-related goods.

With the 2005 Legislature convening Tuesday, lawmakers are still putting together proposals to cover a myriad of issues prompted by the storms.

Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, last week urged emergency management and health care officials to send her ideas for hurricane-related legislation.

"We may not get it all fixed this year, but let me tell you, there's another storm coming," she said.

A tax break for supplies

Lawmakers got a head start on hurricane relief during a special session in December, when they approved a $450-million package that included tax breaks for some homeowners and aid for people facing multiple insurance deductibles.

But most say there's still a lot to be done.

After watching the storm-struck residents of her district fearfully defend their homes in the wake of Hurricane Ivan, Rep. Holly Benson, R-Pensacola, pitched a proposal to crack down on looters.

Benson's bill (HB 207) would make it a first-degree felony to burglarize a home during a state of emergency.

Unarmed burglary is typically a second-degree felony.

A first-degree felony can carry a sentence of as much as life in prison. Maximum sentence for a second-degree felony is 15 years.

A version of the bill has also been introduced in the Senate.

Benson also has proposed a 12-day sales tax holiday (HB 737) to stock up on hurricane supplies. From June 1-12, no sales tax would be collected for such things as plywood (as many as 20 sheets a day), flashlights, portable radios and generators costing as much as $500.

A second version of that bill has been filed in the House and two similar proposals are in the Senate.

Benson said she doesn't expect much opposition.

"We all saw those huge lines before the storms," Benson said. "There were people buying plywood, they were getting their flashlight batteries. This would encourage them to get a head start on their preparations."

The devastation from Hurricane Andrew in 1992 prompted lawmakers to impose stricter building code standards that officials say performed well last year.

Still, there were problems: Roofs blew away and windows shattered, even in vital structures such as hospitals and emergency operations centers, and thousands of older mobile homes were damaged.

Rick Dixon, executive director of the Florida Building Commission, said his agency is still reviewing damage reports. But he is recommending the Legislature end a Panhandle exemption and enforce the tougher building codes statewide.

When the Legislature adopted the stricter building code after Andrew, lawmakers in the Panhandle argued the region was less hurricane-prone than South Florida. So the tougher standards, which include withstanding 120 mile-per-hour winds, extend only 1 mile from the Gulf of Mexico and do not apply to older homes.

Dixon said the widespread destruction from Hurricane Ivan proved the exemption doesn't make sense.

"The winds don't stop 1 mile from the gulf," he said.

Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, and Rep. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, are sponsoring bills (SB 1232, HB835) to eliminate the Panhandle exemption and remove outdated portions of the wind-protection standards of the code.

But the proposal has generated some opposition. Sen. Charlie Clary, R-Pensacola, the author of the exemption, said he's not convinced it needs to be eliminated.

A storm more powerful than a Category 3 has never struck north of Hillsborough County in Florida, Clary said. Ivan was classified as a Category 3.

Clary instead is focused on strengthening hospitals. His bill (S 1125) would create a commission to study the effect of the hurricane season on hospitals and identify those unable to comply with Florida building codes. Special-needs care

Lawmakers say they haven't figured out how to fill gaps in plans for sheltering people with special needs.

Linda Stoughton, emergency management coordinator for St. Johns County, said she was confident her agency was prepared. Then Charley took aim at the state.

The county was quickly overwhelmed with special-needs patients. School buses were recruited to pick up the patients and all of their medical equipment. But they just kept coming.

"When their plans didn't work out, our shelters became Plan B," Stoughton said. Nearly 370,000 people sought refuge in shelters during the hurricane season, but a lack of special-needs shelters, and the personnel to staff them, created an array of problems.

"Our plan needs to be flexible and must follow the needs of the citizens," said Secretary of Health John O. Agwunobi.

Power outages are always a concern during a storm, particularly when patients depend on machines to help them breathe. Lynn has a bill (S 240) requiring all nursing homes have an emergency electrical system. For some, the need for help is still urgent.

Margie Brownsberger and her husband have lived in a 31-foot mobile home on their property since Ivan's storm surge slammed into their home on Grand Lagoon, outside Pensacola.

The roof is still missing and a 30-foot section of the second-story wall is gone. After six months and countless calls to her insurance company, she's almost given up hope of getting it fixed.

"We have fallen through every crack and every agency there is," said Brownsberger, 51. "And we're not the only ones."

She's watched neighbors sell their homes at fire-sale prices and elderly residents drain their savings. Her only message to the Legislature: hurry.

"We're fast approaching another hurricane season," Brownsberger said. "And then there's going to be someone else that's going to be in the exact same situation."