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  1. Opinion

Gwen Graham: We must be better prepared for the next hurricane

John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg served as a shelter during Irma. The best of Florida was on display at many shelters, but other areas — transport, infrastructure — need improving.
John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg served as a shelter during Irma. The best of Florida was on display at many shelters, but other areas — transport, infrastructure — need improving.
Published Sep. 18, 2017

When the shelter went dark, I knew we were ready.

Working alongside Red Cross volunteers from across the country, we had done everything we could to prepare Rickards High School in Tallahassee for Hurricane Irma — even in a power outage.

We were sheltering almost 700 of our fellow Floridians in the gym, cafeteria and auditorium — bringing together local families and those who evacuated from every corner of the state. We even hosted Venezuelan and European families.

Over the course of three days setting up and supervising the shelter, I witnessed the very best Florida has to offer. When the shelter ran low on supplies, people took food off their own plates to share with complete strangers. Kathleen Kohler, a Florida State University freshman from Sarasota, volunteered three 12-hour shifts to help people in her brand-new community.

The school's facility manager, Dale Washington, left his own home to help us open rooms, gather supplies and manage the grounds. And National Guard troops went above and beyond what was asked of them, doing everything from carrying pallets of water to entertaining children.

I've seen these acts of love and caring play out across our state, from the Keys and Southwest Florida to Tampa and Jacksonville, and I am as proud as ever to be a Floridian.

But when the power went out across Florida, our state was not as ready as it could have been.

While the storm brought us closer together, it did so by wreaking great devastation. Many lost everything — at the time of this writing, more than 40 people in Florida have lost their lives. Many homes are still under water. Even more are still without power.

Though many challenges lie ahead, I have complete faith we will rebuild. But in order to come out of Hurricane Irma stronger and more prepared for the next storm, our elected officials in Tallahassee must address comprehensive hurricane defense.

The state needs smarter planning and major infrastructure improvements to protect us from stronger storms. These deficiencies didn't arise in the past week. They have been decades in the making. Hurricanes have grown stronger, but the state has not done nearly enough to prepare us for the effects of climate change we're already feeling today.

Our highway and transportation systems were not ready. I listened to evacuees who faced almost 20 hours of traffic driving to North Florida. The Turnpike and interstates turned into parking lots on northbound lanes.

Gov. Rick Scott correctly suspended tolls, but did not expand highway capacity by reversing southbound traffic — arguing it would cut off gas and emergency crews from reaching South Florida. Supplying every community is vital, which is why the state must develop a plan capable of reversing highway lanes for evacuation while simultaneously providing crucial supplies. The day will come when we must reverse traffic to once again evacuate major cities, and the state must have a plan and a willingness to do it.

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Our coastal and stormwater infrastructure are not prepared to handle climate change. They're two of the most critical areas during a storm, and received D-plus and D ratings, respectively, by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2016.

Rising sea levels have led to more severe storm surges. Sixty-one percent of Florida's beaches are eroding. And stormwater management needs are expected to double in the next decade. We need a statewide coordinated effort to tackle these vital infrastructure issues.

More than 15 million Floridians, about 75 percent, lost power from the storm. For many of us losing power is just an inconvenience, but for at least eight Floridians, it cost them their lives — dying a preventable death after their nursing home lost air conditioning. This heartbreaking outrage was utterly avoidable, which is why I have called for an independent investigation into the governor's secret emergency phone number and requested a full record of the call logs.

Our state government must enact smarter policies that will move more power infrastructure underground, prevent major outages and prioritize protecting Florida's most vulnerable citizens.

Planning for the next storm can't turn into another partisan fight. We must come together to defend our state from stronger storms — and that begins with acknowledging and addressing the effects of climate change, improving infrastructure and prioritizing the safety of every Floridian.

It's time for our elected officials to seriously address the challenges we face with bold solutions. Improving our infrastructure and becoming more prepared for hurricanes will spur growth, create jobs and keep our families safer.

As leaders, we owe it to all Floridians to be honest about the impacts of climate change to the state we love. We owe it to all those who evacuated and to those who volunteered. We owe it to the first responders who put their lives on the line to protect our communities during and after Irma. And, most of all, we owe it to our children, who will face even greater threats and challenges if we fail to act today.

Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham is a Democratic gubernatorial candidate.