Gwen Graham: Florida wasn't prepared for Irma

The Democratic candidate for governor blames GOP leaders.
Graham [Tampa Bay Times]
Graham [Tampa Bay Times]
Published Sept. 17, 2017|Updated Sept. 18, 2017

Florida wasn’t prepared for Hurricane Irma, and much of the blame goes to Republicans who have controlled state government for 20 years, Gwen Graham told a big, cheering crowd at a Democratic Party gathering Saturday.

“We need our elected officials in Tallahassee to address climate change and comprehensive hurricane preparedness,” she said. “When the power went out across Florida, our state was not as ready as we could have been. We cannot overlook that major deficiencies have been exposed.”

Graham faulted Gov. Rick Scott and GOP-dominated Legislatures past and present for defeating regulations that could have prevented the deaths of eight patients in a Hollywood nursing home following the storm; for failing to act on climate change; for weakening building codes, and for failing to keep up with infrastructure and transportation needs.

“I could not believe this -- an hour after the nursing home deaths were reported by the media, House Speaker Richard Corcoran was tweeting about tax rates,” she said. “Floridians were dying and the Speaker was tweeting about tax rates. It’s a sickening example of how the politicians in Tallahassee have the wrong priorities for the wrong people.”

Corcoran tweeted Wednesday morning about the Sarasota County commissioners considering enacting a public service tax.

Graham spoke at the Hillsborough County Democratic Party’s annual Kennedy-King fundraising dinner, an event that saw what party officials called a record crowd of 450 and record fundraising of more than $70,000.

They said the event shows grassroots enthusiasm among Democrats in opposition to President Donald Trump.

County party Chairman Ione Townsend said the number of party precinct representatives has quadrupled since the November election.

“I’m so thrilled to see what’s going on with the Democratic Party across the country and in this county. It’s amazing,” said newly elected county Commissioner Pat Kemp.

Graham told the crowd she expects to be criticized for politicizing the hurricane, but said, “This isn’t about politics … this is about saving lives.”

Still, she made it clear where she places blame for problems in Irma’s wake.

“The Republicans own this,” she said in an interview. “After 20 years of one-party dominance, they are responsible for our failure of preparedness, and failure to take care of the most vulnerable citizens in our state.

“If I’m governor, we will make sure the most vulnerable citizens in our state are protected.”

Graham said she and her husband sought to volunteer at a shelter in Tallahassee, but instead ended up opening and managing another shelter when one in a nearby high school filled up and began turning away evacuees.

“My experiences were moving and life-altering -- people caring about each other and seeing each other through the storm,” she said in the interview, telling stories of evacuees who saw a shortage of workers and volunteered to take on jobs at the shelter.

She had less kind words for legislators who defeated a proposal after Hurricane Wilma in 2005 to require nursing homes to have backup generators capable of running their air conditioning systems, telling the crowd it was blocked by industry lobbyists who said it was too expensive.

In the interview, she added, “Shame on them (the legislators) and shame on the special interests.”

If she’s elected, Graham told the crowd, she will seek to have Florida join California, New York and other states in acting on the Paris climate accords; ban fracking in Florida and prohibit oil drilling off Florida beaches.

Referring to a bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott last spring, which criticis said will weaken the state’s building codes, Graham said in the interveiw, “Developers have taken over in our state since Rick Scott has been governor. I am pro-growth, but as governor I’ll make sure our citizens are first and foremost.”

She blamed Scott for failing to have a plan to allow reversing southbound highway lanes to expedite evacuations, resulting in jammed interstates.