Thursday, April 26, 2018
Opinion

Latvala: We must improve our power grid — and other lessons Hurricane Irma taught us

Many people in Florida are picking up the tattered pieces of their lives following the wrath of Irma, as one of the largest hurricanes ever recorded laid down a swath of devastation from Key West to the northern border of Florida.

Even now as millions of Floridians have had power restored, there are still tens of thousands without power and struggling in the heat and humidity. It is far too easy for us to move on to the next thing as life begins to return to normal, but we must not let that happen.

While Hurricane Irma has moved on, it is not a matter of if, but only when, the next storm will impact our state. That isn't to say we need to panic, but rather stay vigilant and make smart decisions moving forward. We have plenty to be thankful for, including the storm's change in path that spared the Tampa Bay area the full brunt of the expected surge.

I applaud the first responders who worked countless hours to help people across this great state. Gov. Rick Scott was alert to declare a state of emergency and helped provide quick access to federal support. Additionally, he worked seamlessly with the mayors and county leaders across this state to effectively communicate important storm information to the people in the path of the storm.

While things could have gone much worse, they could also have fared far better.

If nothing else, this storm has demonstrated our state is sorely lacking in the fortitude of our power grids. Now is the time for every power company in Florida to spend the money necessary to reinforce the power grid infrastructure. One very useful way for them to address this issue would be to take the money they historically donate to political candidates and instead use that money to ensure that the millions of Floridians who recently lost power will be protected from this same fate in the future.

A quick check of state records shows in the 2018 election cycle the state's largest utilities have already donated more than $3.6 million to candidates, parties and political committees. I am sure there are plenty of Floridians who will agree that money could be better spent upgrading and protecting our power grid. I ask that utilities suspend their largesse to politicians until they can assure us that our power grids are improved.

I will lead by example and henceforth refuse electric utility contributions to my campaign and political committee.

The eight lives lost this month and the horror that occurred at a Hollywood nursing home also underscore the fact that being without power can become a life-or-death situation. And so it is imperative that we make it mandatory for all retirement homes and assisted-living facilities to have backup generators in place for mass power outages like the ones we experienced from Irma. This is the very least we can do, and more long-term plans for possible evacuations should also be considered in the face of imminent threats.

As for evacuations, we saw firsthand that even with substantial notice, evacuating millions of people northward out of Florida is no small feat. Traffic backups on U.S. 19 stretched up to 10 miles. There is a very strong need to expedite the north-south limited access transportation option along our west coast.

Another solution we should consider is extending the tax-free period for the Florida Disaster Sales Tax Holiday and adding more common and useful hurricane items to the tax-exempt list. Offering more items at affordable prices for an extended period may provide enough incentive for people to purchase the necessary items.

Even now, we watch the tropics as the Caribbean islands prepare for yet another major hurricane, and while the current track does not include Florida that does not mean the threat to our state and citizens is any less real.

We will be feeling the effects of Hurricane Irma for years to come. Now is the time for Floridians to start preparing and improving how we will weather the next storm. If the last couple of hurricanes are any indicator for what is to come, we can no longer rest on the strategies and tactics of the past few decades. We must use the knowledge we have now and become wiser and better prepared for the seasons to come.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and is a candidate for governor.

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