Florida Keys residents focus on rebuilding after Hurricane Irma

The heavy-lifting machines were back out Tuesday afternoon, clearing away mounds of excess debris that has left so many neighborhoods around Key West feeling isolated.

“This is amazing,” Keys resident Lillian Anderson said. “They have on other street — they have like seven trucks waiting to be loaded. They’re really doing it seriously.”

A week after Hurricane Irma passed through, signs of the impact remain around nearly every corner.

Local 10 News reporter Terrell Forney saw an SUV on Tuesday that had been crushed by a fallen tree and had yet to be removed.

The SUV was parked on a road near one of the city’s most busiest areas.

And up the highway in Big Pine Key, the devastation is seemingly endless.

Homes were ripped by the storm and large boats were tossed aside.

Many people lost everything they own, like Nick Harding, whose  property was flooded by storm surge.

“I had 18 inches of water inside the house,” he said.

Rebuilding has been the primary mission.

The storm may have destroyed plenty of property in the Upper, Middle and Lower Keys, but it certainly hasn’t broken the spirit of people who call the Keys home.

“It’s amazing. Key West is just coming together,” Anderson said.

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FEMA isn’t relying on trailers to house hurricane victims

The hurricanes that battered Texas and Florida have likely spawned the worst disaster-created housing crisis since Hurricane Katrina left hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents without homes more than a decade ago.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it’s not borrowing from its much-maligned Katrina playbook to rely on government-issued trailers or mobile homes to shelter residents displaced by hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

“We don’t have enough FEMA trailers for all the homes that were destroyed,” FEMA Administrator Brock Long said last week at a briefing in Washington. “If you combine Harvey and Irma, this is an extraordinary event that is going to require innovative solutions when it comes to housing.”

After Katrina struck in 2005, federal lawsuits accused FEMA of recklessly providing scores of storm victims with shoddily constructed trailers that exposed occupants to toxic fumes. FEMA, which stopped using the cramped travel trailers, has touted the safety features of its latest generation of mobile homes.

Long, however, said manufactured housing will not be the primary way people in Texas and Florida are provided temporary housing in the coming months.

Harvey flooded more than 79,000 homes with at least 18 inches of water, according to a FEMA official. More than 740,000 households have registered for FEMA aid, such as rental assistance and money for damage repairs. The agency already is paying for tens of thousands of Harvey victims to stay in hotels and motels in 33 states.

Long is working with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to find ways to get people back in their flood-damaged homes more quickly, without using manufactured housing.

“The way we’ve done business in the past has not necessarily been successful. It’s been a frustrating road,” Long said Friday.

During a record-setting hurricane season in 2005, Katrina’s devastation sent FEMA scrambling to meet the unprecedented need for temporary housing in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Less than one month after Katrina’s landfall, Hurricane Rita roared ashore and demolished roughly 23,000 more homes in Texas and Louisiana.

FEMA purchased more than 140,000 new trailers and mobile homes to house Katrina and Rita victims near their storm-shattered properties or in makeshift trailer parks.

By March 2006, FEMA learned of concerns that travel trailers were exposing occupants to elevated formaldehyde levels. Formaldehyde, a chemical commonly found in building materials, can cause breathing problems and is classified as a carcinogen.

Many trailer occupants began complaining of headaches, nosebleeds and difficulty breathing. Government tests on hundreds of trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi found formaldehyde levels that were, on average, about five times higher than in most modern homes.

Storm victims’ attorneys accused the trailer makers of using substandard building materials and methods in a rush to fill FEMA’s orders. The lawyers also claimed FEMA downplayed the formaldehyde concerns for months and initially balked at air quality tests to avoid legal liability.

A team of attorneys sued the federal government and travel manufacturers on behalf of tens of thousands of storm victims. But a federal judge dismissed all claims against the federal government, ruling FEMA couldn’t be held liable for deciding to use travel trailers after Katrina and Rita.

“They’re basically bullet-proof when it comes to deciding the type of emergency housing they provide,” said Gerald Meunier, who was one of the lead plaintiffs’ attorneys for the litigation. “We said, ‘It was a dumb choice. You just picked the wrong kind of housing.'”

Michael Byrne, FEMA’s federal disaster recovery coordinator for Harvey, said the agency will be moving manufactured housing units into the flood-ravaged region “as the demand presents itself” to help state and local officials “fill the gap.”

“We’re not going to put people in anything that’s substandard,” Byrne said. “We’ve learned lessons.”

More than 4,600 households in south Louisiana have lived in FEMA-supplied mobile homes since a storm dumped more than two feet of rain on parts of the region last summer, damaging or destroying tens of thousands of homes. Approximately 3,000 families, mostly in the Baton Rouge area, were still living in the “manufactured housing units” as of Thursday.

For nearly nine months, Misty Munsell has shared one of those mobile homes with her 64-year-old mother and 85-year-old grandmother. The family moved in two days before Christmas, after waiting several weeks for FEMA contractors to finish installing it next to the moldy, gutted wreckage of their Baton Rouge house.

“It doesn’t feel like home, but we try,” said Munsell, a 34-year-old emergency medical technician who helped rescue neighbors from last August’s floodwaters.

Storage space is limited, so their floors are cluttered with garbage bags filled with clean clothes and linens. Thunderstorms rattle their walls and windows. The smoke detector goes off if they cook with stovetop burners on their hottest setting. Raw sewage leaked from an unsealed pipe, and the nauseating smell lasted for days.

“It’s better than the alternative of nothing,” said Munsell’s mother, Linda Naquin.

State Rep. Ted James, who lives in the same subdivision as Munsell’s family, said he has seen the mobile homes arrive at a nearby staging area and sit unoccupied for weeks. The Democrat blames “federal red tape” for the slow pace.

“I was disappointed with the entire process,” James said. “It didn’t seem to be coordinated at all. This happens yearly, and to continue to have these hiccups is unreal.”

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Biesecker contributed to this story from Washington.

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After Irma, Florida Jews seek respite in High Holy Days

During Hurricane Irma, Temple Shalom served as a sanctuary of a different kind.

When the storm changed course at the last minute, the Naples synagogue suddenly became an emergency shelter. As power stayed off for days, the Reform temple, which had only minimal damage, was a place for neighbors to escape the heat and have a free meal.

Now, amid the upheaval caused by Irma, Rabbi Adam Miller has decided the sermons he had carefully planned for the Jewish High Holy Days, starting Wednesday night, are no longer relevant.

“Those are in the trash can,” said Miller, who rode out the storm in Memphis, Tennessee, carrying one of the synagogue’s Torah scrolls for safekeeping. “The new message now is bringing the community together. No matter how challenging it might seem, we can pick up the pieces and rebuild.”

In Florida’s large Jewish community, the solemn period starting with Rosh Hashana has taken on new meaning as congregants facing desperate uncertainty about the state of their homes, neighbors and livelihoods seek as much comfort as inspiration in the new year.

“The hurricane was so incredibly disruptive psychologically,” said Rabbi Michael Resnick of Temple Emanu-el of Palm Beach, a Conservative congregation, who used a solar charger to power his phone so he could send emails of support to his congregation throughout the storm and in the days after. “For me, it was a reminder of how small and fragile we are and that we really have no control over a whole lot.”

Even before Irma, Jews in Florida and throughout the country were unsettled approaching the holidays, after a year of ever-bolder expressions of anti-Semitism, including a rally last month of neo-Nazis and white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, where cries of “Sieg Heil!” were heard. President Donald Trump’s blaming of “many sides” for the violence at the march drew rebukes from many Jewish leaders.

For Florida’s Jews, Irma presented a more immediate personal threat. About 600,000 Florida residents – or about 3 percent of the population – are Jewish, and many are elderly.

Lillian Andron, 70, who spent days without power at their home, declined invitations from friends to go elsewhere for the holidays because her husband, Michael, wanted to keep his years-long tradition of blowing the shofar, or ceremonial ram’s horn, at his North Miami Beach Orthodox congregation. He started practicing a month ago, a sound his wife found comforting during a difficult two weeks of storm watching, long gas lines, the hurricane and the aftermath.

“I feel like this year Rosh Hashana became even more important because we just want to get in touch with the infinite, so I feel like I don’t need to do the big meal and have company. This year I just wanted to be more reflective,” she said.

Many Jews who evacuated ahead of Irma will not make it back to their communities and their synagogues for the holidays. Miller said some parents have told him they won’t return until schools re-open. Resnick said many of his congregants who had spent the summer outside of Florida have dropped plans to return to Palm Beach for Rosh Hashana.

The Reform Jewish movement and other branches of American Judaism are asking synagogues around the country to admit those displaced by Irma and Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Texas last month. Congregations generally charge for attendance during the High Holy Days, which also include Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement.

In Key West, Rabbi Yaakov Zucker of the Chabad Jewish Center in the Florida Keys said his congregation of about 200 people is scattered across four states.

“They themselves are sort of wandering Jews right now, refugees,” Zucker said as he fielded calls from congregants seeking a place to attend services. A synagogue in Parkland has offered to host them, Zucker said, and he expects at least 50 of them to attend.

The disruption from the storm could reach far beyond the immediate period of recovery. The High Holy Days are a critical time for fund-raising, which can make or break a synagogue budget for the year.

Kol Ami of Boca Raton, a small Reconstructionist congregation trying to attract new members, does not sell seats for New Year services and instead relies on contributions to cover the costs of flying in a rabbi and cantor to lead worship.

Kol Ami’s rental space, at a Unitarian Universalist church, had no building damage, but some electronics inside were damaged.

“We’re not sure how much we’ll have to improvise,” said Roberta Jainchill, the congregation’s president. “We survive from one holiday to the next and hope people come through with donations. I hope we make it.”

Miller said his Reform synagogue will host about 40 members of a nearby Conservative congregation because their building was too damaged to hold services.

Miller was a student rabbi in New York City when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred. He said Florida after Irma feels “a little like that.”

“We’re a community where everybody’s life is turned upside down,” he said. “People here desperately need to hear the shofar calling them to another year of life.”

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Spencer reported from Naples. Zoll reported from New York. Kelli Kennedy reported from Fort Lauderdale.

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US Rep. Frederica Wilson spearheads effort to ensure care facilities have generators, adequate fuel

U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Florida, is spearheading an effort to pass legislation mandating every long-term care facility has a generator and adequate fuel supply following the deaths of eight people who lived at a nursing home in Hollywood.

“I am livid. We should all be besides ourselves,” the congresswoman said about their deaths.

Elected officials, community members, and nursing home and assisted living facility representatives are pulling together to discuss change.

Wilson called a town hall meeting on Tuesday, where she talked about possible legislation that would protect senior citizens living in facilities during and after natural disasters.

“We want to make sure that every long-term care facility has a generator that’s powered, and if they do not have that generator, then someone needs to know that,” Wilson said.

The town hall meeting came after the deaths of eight people at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills after Hurricane Irma knocked out power and air conditioning to the facility.

“We failed to keep these vulnerable seniors safe from harm in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma when power and A/C units were not functioning as designed,” State Sen. Lauren Book, D-Florida, said.

Florida has the highest population of senior citizens in the country, and the tragedy has also opened the eyes of people who have had to rely on others caring for their loved ones.

“It was a situation where, unfortunately, my family and I had to go every day to make sure that he was OK, because of the concerns we had,” said concerned citizen Pat Thomas. “And it’s a universal problem, I think, in terms of what’s going on in terms of the care.”

A task force will look at policies and measures at senior facilities and determine the best way to move forward with laws.

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Commercial flights to Key West will resume Wednesday

Key West International Airport will resume commercial service beginning Wednesday.

The airport has been closed to commercial flights for 12 days during Hurricane Irma evacuations and the immediate aftermath.

“I’m very proud of the hard work and dedication that the airport maintenance employees have shown over the course of this trying time,” Monroe County Airports Department director Donald DeGraw said. “We are excited to start commercial service and serve our valued customers.”

Monroe County spokeswoman Cammy Clark said maintenance crews cleaned and made repairs to the airport after the storm.

The decision to reopen the airport to commercial service comes after the Transportation Security Administration inspected the facility and gave it the green light to resume flights.

Even though the airport will reopen Wednesday, only residents and those assisting with relief efforts are allowed in the Florida Keys.

Commercial flights will be limited for the first few days of service, so travelers are advised to contact their airlines for specific flight information.

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‘Frivolous lawsuits’ will not pressure FPL to provide preferential treatment to Coral Gables

“Frivolous lawsuits and ludicrous code violations” from Coral Gables will not pressure Florida Power & Light to provide “preferential treatment” to the city, company officials said in a statement.

“We understand that it’s extremely frustrating for our customers to be without power,” the statement read in part. “That said, frivolous lawsuits and ludicrous code violations that attempt to pressure us into providing preferential treatment for their city will not work.”

The city of Coral Gables recently threatened legal action in a letter to FPL, saying the company has been slow to act after Hurricane Irma knocked out power in Coral Gables and most of South Florida.

On Tuesday morning, the city issued a citation against FPL for not restoring power by a Sept. 17 deadline. 

FPL officials said they are committed to restoring power to all of its customers, but said Coral Gables has resisted their previous efforts to trim trees in the area and toughen its electric system.

“Our focus is on restoring power to all of our customers, and we will not be moved by self-entitled politicians who are looking for someone to blame for the city’s irresponsibly managed tree program,” FPL’s statement said. “The fact is the city of Coral Gables has for many years resisted FPL’s well-documented efforts to trim trees and harden our electric system. Unfortunately for our customers in that area, they are now paying the price in terms of extended outages due to hundreds of trees that have fallen into our lines.”

FPL officials said it’s unclear how many of the city’s 38,000 trees were “improperly located,” causing damage to electrical equipment during the storm, but said they are certain that the trees are the problem.

“There’s no doubt that the city’s extreme approach to trees is the cause of the problem,” FPL said. “More importantly, it threatens the safety of the residents of Coral Gables and the lives of the lineworkers who are trying to restore power.”

FPL officials said 97 percent of Miami-Dade County has had power restored and thousands of crews are working around the clock to restore power to the rest of the county.

FPL’s statement comes after a class-action lawsuit was filed against the company on behalf of two people, and all Florida residents who are or were without power after Hurricane Irma.

The company said the people who filed the lawsuit have a history of “pursuing frivolous legal action,” and said that they were concerned that the suit was filed by a law firm they said is linked to Coral Gables Commissioner Frank Quesada.

Below is FPL’s full statement:

“We understand that it’s extremely frustrating for our customers to be without power. That said, frivolous lawsuits and ludicrous code violations that attempt to pressure us into providing preferential treatment for their City will not work. Our focus is on restoring power to all of our customers, and we will not be moved by self-entitled politicians who are looking for someone to blame for the City’s irresponsibly managed tree program. The fact is the city of Coral Gables has for many years resisted FPL’s well-documented efforts to trim trees and harden our electric system. Unfortunately for our customers in that area, they are now paying the price in terms of extended outages due to hundreds of trees that have fallen into our lines.

While we do not have a precise assessment of the number of City-owned trees that may have been improperly located, resulting in unnecessarily extensive damage to electrical equipment and extended outages for Coral Gables residents, there’s no doubt that the City’s extreme approach to trees is the cause of the problem. More importantly, it threatens the safety of the residents of Coral Gables and the lives of the lineworkers who are trying to restore power.

We have restored 97 percent of Miami-Dade, and thousands of crews are working to restore the remaining customers without power. After restoration is complete, FPL would be happy to work with the City constructively and provide them recommendations on how to avoid some of these problems from reoccurring during severe weather in the future. However, it is important to note, that numerous attempts we’ve made in the past to address the impact of the City’s dense, overgrown vegetation and tree canopy has on the reliability of their residents’ electric service has been ignored.

We recently learned of a separate, related lawsuit filed on behalf of two individuals who appear to have a history of pursuing frivolous legal action. Frivolous lawsuits are filed every day in America, however, what is concerning in this case is that the suit was filed by a law firm linked to a Coral Gables City Commissioner. We have not yet received a copy of the lawsuit, but we can only assume it’s another attempt to distract from the City’s failure to properly locate and manage its trees, despite having a website that shows the exact location of each of its 38,000 trees.

Our crews have been removing a shocking number of fallen and damaged trees that were apparently planted by the City in dangerous locations far too close to power lines. Other trees appear to have been planted too closely together, preventing their root systems from being able to grow properly and hold the ground securely in high winds. With wind gusts of more than 90 mph recorded in nearby weather stations, it’s no wonder why so many trees came crashing down all over the City.”   

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