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Many hurricane relief measures get blown away
Despite positives like a tax holiday on storm supplies, state lawmakers didn't pass many of the more sweeping disaster relief proposals.
By CARRIE JOHNSON
Published May 11, 2005
TALLAHASSEE - Lawmakers scurried to pass a variety of measures to compensate for losses from last year's deadly hurricane season and bolster resources to prepare for the year to come.
Consumers will get a 12-day holiday to buy tax-free hurricane supplies, looters will face stiffer penalties and the hardest-hit areas of Florida will get $15-million to make up for lost property taxes.
But some wonder if it will be enough.
"This was the year to fix it, the year after Florida was hit by four hurricanes," said Peg Thomas, senior planner for the Pasco County Office of Emergency Management. "We thought concerns about shelters and other things would be at the top of the priorities list."
Among the proposals that didn't make it this year was a sweeping bill sponsored by Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, aimed at improving disaster planning for the state. The bill would have created new rules for special needs shelters, which were overwhelmed by patients last year.
The bill passed 112-0 in the House but died in a Senate committee.
"It's disappointing," Harrell said. "Especially when we know we're going into hurricane season and we may have to start all this over again."
One of the most important provisions in the bill would have allowed shelters that serve special needs patients to be reimbursed by the federal government for their expenses, Harrell said.
Thomas said some facilities were reluctant to be used as special needs shelters during the hurricanes because of the potential cost.
A requirement that all nursing homes have an emergency electrical system also died in committee. Problems were reported when these facilities lost power during the storms because many patients depend on machines to help them breathe.
Nonprofit hospitals in storm-struck areas of the state had hoped to receive money from the state to pay for upgrades and repairs. But while the House approved $25-million for hospitals in Pensacola, Stuart, Boynton Beach and Boca Raton, the Senate refused to support it, citing too many unanswered questions. Instead, it compromised on a study to determine the damage.
Rich Rasmussen of the Florida Hospital Association called the Senate's decision disappointing.
"It would have been a relief," Rasmussen said. "But these hospitals are going to continue doing what they can."
Lawmakers held a special session in December to get a head start on hurricane recovery. They approved a $450-million package that included tax breaks for some homeowners and aid for people facing multiple insurance deductibles.
The windfall continued during the regular session, when legislators set aside $15-million for 12 counties slammed by the storms. The money is to offset losses to county tax rolls from lower property tax collections.
Gov. Jeb Bush, who has a reputation for slashing millions of dollars in local projects, said he would keep last year's hurricanes in mind before using his veto power.
"I will be more sympathetic to the plight of people in hurricane areas than I would for regular line items," Bush said.
Bush also was an enthusiastic supporter of a sales tax holiday to encourage Floridians to buy hurricane supplies, which passed unanimously in both chambers. From June 1-12, shoppers can stock up tax-free on batteries, portable radios, coolers, gas tanks, tarps and portable generators.
"It's clear that people aren't focused on hurricane preparation the way they should," Bush said. "To have large retailers use this as a tool to garner sales and get people focused on prevention is a really good idea."
Rep. Holly Benson, R-Pensacola, whose community was devasted by Hurricane Ivan's fierce winds, was one of the sponsors of the popular bill. Benson also got a measure passed upping the charge for burglarizing a home during a state of emergency from a second-degree felony to a first-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.
"When you come home and see your memories scattered around the street, you want to know people won't take advantage of it," Benson said.
Times staff writer Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report. Carrie Johnson can be reached at 850 224-7263 or firstname.lastname@example.org