Culture wars won’t fix Florida after Hurricane Ian. Time for real work, lawmakers | Editorial

Pedro Portal/pportal@miamiherald.com

The enormity of the pain Hurricane Ian has inflicted on Florida is just beginning to sink in.

Millions without power. Billions in losses. Access to Sanibel Island severed by a collapsed causeway. Two counties, Charlotte and Lee, “completely off the grid,” according to Gov. Ron DeSantis. Hundreds of rescues underway, many via chopper, to find those stranded in high water from a storm surge that swamped buildings, driven by winds that reached 155 miles per hour.

An untold number of deaths. An unknown number of displaced people. Vast swaths of ruined homes and businesses. An electrical system that will need to be rebuilt in some places on the southwest coast, not just repaired.

“You’re looking at a storm that has changed the character of a significant part of our state,” the governor said. He’s right. Rebuilding, he predicted, could take years. He’s probably right on that one, too.

And the recovery will affect all of us, even those fortunate enough to live in areas like Miami or Tallahassee that emerged relatively unscathed from this nightmare of a hurricane. Increased insurance rates, reduced tourism, displaced residents, businesses that can’t operate, workers with no jobs, environmental damage — the list grows as we see the photos of devastation emerging from some of the hardest hit areas.

In the aftermath of such a vast natural disaster, the needs will be huge and they’ll last for years — something that DeSantis may not have understood when, as a newly elected congressman from Florida, he voted against aid for those in New York and New Jersey hit by Hurricane Sandy in 2013. He later explained that he felt the money was appropriated for too many years and some would be used for “extraneous stuff” that could not be called emergencies.

This time, though, the storm hit here. The problems are here. The effects — enormous, long-lasting and too overwhelming for the state to bear alone — will be here, now and far in the future. Not extraneous at all.

The governor asked for and got a major disaster declaration from President Biden and, with it, federal assistance to help Floridians piece their lives back together. That was clearly the only thing to do, even in such a bitterly partisan era, just six weeks out from elections. It’s funny how the harsh realities of Hurricane Ian expose the culture wars for what they are: empty distractions ginned up by faux outrage.

What’s needed now

No, the real work has to be done now, if lawmakers even have the capability. It’s too early to know exactly what will be needed going forward, but some issues are quickly coming into focus.

Florida’s insurance market — one of the state’s biggest problems, already teetering on the edge of disaster — immediately will be in the crosshairs. Is storm-surge damage covered by wind insurance — the surge is driven by the hurricane’s intense winds — or by federal flood insurance? This is an old battle that happens after storms, with shell-shocked homeowners caught in the middle. But that’s the last thing that should be happening. Florida has the highest average property-insurance premiums in the nation.

Add to that: Another Florida property insurer failed last week, the sixth this year, amid widespread financial problems in the industry. That happened despite a special legislative session earlier this year that was supposed to help shore up Florida’s insurance market.

And with every failure, more homeowners are forced into Florida’s “insurer of last resort,” Citizens Property Insurance, created by the state in 2002 to cover homes that private insurance won’t. Citizens already has about 1.3 million policies, more than double the number it had two years ago. How many more can it bear?

Florida lawmakers are going to have to deal with the unstable property-insurance market and its ever-increasing premiums, or voters are going to do it when they go to the ballot box.

Elections are coming

Florida’s elections are Nov. 8, and that includes the high-profile gubernatorial race and other marquee contests, such as Republican incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio versus Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Val Demings. What will happen to voters in places like Fort Myers, who are going to be consumed with the struggle to get back on their feet?

After Category 5 Hurricane Michael hit the Panhandle in 2018, three weeks before elections, then-Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order allowing officials in eight counties to loosen voting laws and consolidate polling places, but he provided no additional money to do so.

Loss of life and property is terrible enough without also losing the opportunity to vote. The state should make every effort to provide temporary voting locations at the same polling spots as before. Turnout no doubt will be adversely affected if we force people to drive longer distances to some new location or figure out how to vote by mail if they no longer have a home where they can receive a ballot.

In a lot of places, slightly lower voter turnout wouldn’t matter. But in razor-thin-margin Florida, it does.

It’s clear from even the early photos and videos that many of the homes in the worst hit areas will be uninhabitable for a long time to come. Where will those people go?

Federal assistance probably isn’t the answer. The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers some help to those without insurance — paying for temporary lodging, for example — but that’s not going to help much. People need to work, if their jobs still exist, and they need places to live for the longer term. Even if they are rebuilding, they’ll need schools for their children and cars that aren’t ruined by storm surge. They’ll need support, in other words. And that’s costly.

The question of reconstruction also will have to be addressed. How well did Florida’s tough, post-Hurricane Andrew building codes hold up? Should rebuilding in flood zones require new levels of elevation, given the influence of climate change on worsening hurricanes?

It’s easy for people in other parts of the country to say we shouldn’t rebuild in areas most vulnerable to storms, but if not, how could or should those people be compensated? Again, someone has to pay that bill — and it’ll cost a lot more than it would have even a few years ago, as property values in Florida have spiked to new highs. Will those home values be affected by a storm that DeSantis said caused “biblical” damage? That remains to be seen.

Floridians know that hurricanes are part of the price we pay for life in the Sunshine State, a price that seems to be getting higher for all of us. But that’s what government is for, to address the monumental challenges posed by disasters like this one, challenges that require us all to pull together, not splinter by party.

Culture wars don’t get people into dry housing or rebuild causeways or address billions of dollars in damages. Banning books or attacking critical race theory won’t help fix loss of life and property. How will our leaders handle this moment? A lot hangs in the balance.