FL - Editorial Roundup: Florida

The AP selects top coastal stories of the year in Florida

Palm Beach Post. December 23, 2022. Editorial: ‘Hope’ won’t fix Florida’s property insurance crisis

If you thought the original was disappointing, the sequel provided more of the same. Last week’s special session of the Florida Legislature marked the second attempt this year by Gov. Ron DeSantis and state lawmakers to address the property insurance crisis. The first one produced changes that favored the insurance industry; this one’s no different.

What came out of last week’s three-day special session were bills that continue to put the burden of propping up a faltering industry that is key to the state’s all-important real estate market squarely on the backs of homeowners. Floridians already pay an average of $4,231, up from $1,988 in 2019, according to an Insurance Information Institute analysis. That price will probably continue to grow, despite the new legislative fix.

Private insurance firms will receive $1 billion from state coffers to cover the reinsurance they buy as a backstop to help pay claims. Policyholders will find it more difficult to legally challenge any offers property insurers may give in response to claims. If you believe you’ll get a break through Citizens Property Insurance Corp., think again. The legislation makes it easier for the state to force policyholders out of lower-cost Citizens coverage and onto policies from higher-priced private carriers.

“I don’t like that. Floridians don’t like that,” House Speaker Paul Renner acknowledged at a press conference. “But we’re in a very bad spot.”

Granted, fixing Florida’s property insurance market is, well, daunting. Litigation has been a problem for an industry that over the years has paid billions in claims. The rising cost of reinsurance makes it difficult for firms to operate in Florida, and the fact that the market is dominated by so many smaller, private insurers carrying ever-increasing risks is problematic, too. Florida also can’t continue with Citizens Property, the state-backed insurance carrier that is supposedly “the insurer of last resort,” being an only option for policyholders who can’t find coverage elsewhere.

The plan the Republican-dominated Legislature produced had an air of desperation. “Long-term?” asked State Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, who sponsored the bill. “There is hope and a plan.”

Unfortunately, there were other realities that lawmakers favoring the bills failed to take into consideration, and in some cases, rejected outright. For example, Democratic lawmakers offered amendments: pushing for insurance rate freezes and consumer subsidies and other protections for policyholders. But those amendments were defeated by party-line vote. For Florida’s property insurance customers, there’s no hope the new round of industry-friendly legislation will provide immediate relief from fleeting homeowner’s insurance availability or skyrocketing premiums. State Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, put it succinctly: “My constituents are getting screwed.”

The bottom line is, Florida needs a far more comprehensive approach to help both consumers and the industry than what state lawmakers took a three-day special session to concoct.

Thanks to a warming planet, the state is becoming more susceptible to storms, surges and flooding, particularly in low-lying coastal areas that remain magnets for population growth. For years, state leaders have turned a deaf ear to climate change, taking a laissez-faire approach to development and growth management that is now beginning to cost Floridians big-time.

It also hasn’t helped when state leaders prefer public confrontation over collaboration in addressing both consumer and industry needs. That was exemplified by this year’s name-calling and complaining to federal home mortgage agencies after Demotech, Inc., an Ohio based insurance financial ratings firm, announced it would downgrade 17 insurers operating in Florida. Going after the one ratings agency still willing to do do business in Florida was not the way the state should conduct business, much less help consumers obtain affordable insurance options.

As lawmakers dished out their industry-slanted offerings, Gov. DeSantis was in Sarasota announcing his plans to petition the Florida Supreme Court to convene a grand jury to investigate “any and all wrongdoing” related to COVID-19 vaccines − a cheap political stunt and an obvious distraction from the more pressing insurance issue all rolled into one.

If the Governor wants to show the world an accomplishment worthy of his presidential aspirations, he should focus on finding a better way to address the property insurance meltdown in his home state.

Orlando Sentinel. December 23, 2022. Editorial: Florida’s beloved right whales face extinction

At a season where we celebrate the birth of a miraculous child to a mother who traveled long and far, take a minute to think about Snow Cone.

That is her name. We say “is,” because Snow Cone has become the valiant standard-bearer for the desperately endangered North Atlantic right whale. We want, with all our hearts, to believe that she and her baby are alive somewhere, even though we know she is suffering.

When Snow Cone was spotted last winter in the waters off Northeast Florida, she gave every impression of being “a dead whale swimming,” as one of those fighting to save the 330-something North Atlantic whales left said this week. She was tangled in the fishing gear she’d been trailing for months, and there appeared to be recent scars on her head. In a photograph taken Jan. 6, the calf looked a little bigger than it did in another aerial shot taken a month earlier. But Snow Cone was noticeably thinner.

Researchers had given up hope. Yet Snow Cone kept fighting. She was spotted in Canadian waters in July, and again south of Nantucket on Sept. 21. But her wasted body was infested with sea lice and wrapped in even more strangling ropes and tackle. “She was moving so slowly, she couldn’t dive, she just sunk. She’s suffering. There is no longer hope for her survival,” said Sharon Hsu, part of the New England Aquarium aerial survey team that spotted her, in a press release.

Her baby has not been seen since April.

Is it too late?

Snow Cone is probably beyond salvation. Other whales are not. But a few lines in the 4,000-page omnibus spending bill passed this week might doom them to extinction if the new Congress doen’t take swift action.

We hope Florida’s members of Congress — particularly Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, but also the new and returning House members — have seen these photos as well, or viewed the documentary about the earlier days of her saga, 2021′s “The Last of the Right Whales.” And we hope it moves them to raise the alarm and find a solution. It will take a lot of clout and effort. The spending bill is finalized and could be on President Biden’s desk soon ― and he lacks the line-item veto to kill it. But the dirty deal to sacrifice right whales was slipped in at the very last minute. And Florida lawmakers should lead the charge to find a fix.

Because many of these whales, including Snow Cone’s calf, were born in the warm, shallow waters of Florida’s northeast coast. That makes them the constituents of Florida’s congressional delegation. Without advocates, their fight for survival may effectively be over.

The language that should be targeted looks innocuous enough. But it guts a July order by the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals that advocates say is critical to the whale’s last chance of survival. The court reinstated a rule that closes nearly 1,000 square miles of federally protected waters off the coast of Maine to a particularly deadly form of lobster harvesting. The gear used is extremely hazardous to whales, creating what Davenport describes as a “dense maze of heavy lobster ropes” in the whales’ feeding grounds.

Keeping this zone safe is essential for the fewer than 100 breeding female whales left, who must eat enough plankton during their feeding phase to survive months of starvation in their habitual calving grounds off the Florida/Georgia coast. Once they are entangled, it’s nearly impossible to get close enough to them to cut the gear free, though people have died trying.

The rider to the giant spending bill wipes away the court victory and allows the lobster industry to continue to use the whale-killing gear, even though there are safer ways to catch lobster, says Jane Davenport, senior attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “If they (the fishing industry) keep getting a hall pass to violate the law there’s no incentive … to move from outdated technologies,” she says.

The door to extinction

The backroom deal to insert language into the spending bill represents a dangerous precedent for other imperiled species, offering a new way to evade any of the provisions of laws like the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Other industries inconvenienced by federal wildlife protection laws are almost certainly watching. That’s one reason Defenders of Wildlife are among many groups — including EarthJustice, the Humane Society of the United States and the Pew Charitable Trust — that howled in protest at the addition of the language to the must-pass budget bill.

The whales’ plight is reason enough to push back now. There may never be another whale like Snow Cone: She has defied much of what is known about right whale biology by giving birth to a calf just a few years after her first baby was killed in a boat strike; most right whales only give birth every 7-10 years. On the NOAA web page documenting her travails, Barb Zoodsma, Large Whale Recovery Coordinator at NOAA Fisheries’ Southeast Regional Office, was optimistic, saying: “Clearly, Snow Cone has game.”

That optimism is nearly extinct. Snow Cone’s body could be anywhere along the eastern seaboard. But without the protection of federal law, the chances are high that we’ll see a repeat of her fate with another breeding female … and another, and another. Every time one is entangled, it reduces her chances of producing a calf. Every time one dies, all the calves she might have produced die with her. Florida residents who rejoice every time a big whale is spotted off our shore, and take pride in the fact whales travel hundreds of miles south to give birth here, will be among those who understand how much we have to lose.

At some point, it will be too late. That point may have already passed. But we plead with Florida lawmakers to rally others, and fight for their survival. A deal this dangerous, dastardly and secretive should never be regarded as unfixable.

Sun Sentinel. December 21, 2022. Editorial: The fight to save Florida manatees is at a desperate point

Just five years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared a small measure of victory in the fight to save Florida’s beloved manatees, downgrading their protected-species status from endangered status to threatened. Now the gentle creatures are literally starving to death under the horrified, despairing gaze of waterfront residents and visitors to this state.

The immediate solution is barely deserving of the word. Lettuce, hundreds of thousands of pounds of it (purchased when national lettuce prices were at an all-time high) will be fed to manatees clustered around the warm-water discharge point of a Titusville power plant. Under normal circumstances, this would make wildlife officials shudder. But they acknowledge that there’s no choice: The seagrass beds in the Intracoastal Waterway where many East Coast manatees usually graze during winter months have all but disappeared.

A breaking point

There’s no point in asking what happened. Everyone knows. After years of incessant talk about cleaning up water bodies such as the Indian River Lagoon — talk, little action — things finally hit a breaking point. Waters once crystal clear and teeming with life continued to be fouled by failing septic tanks and runoff from over-fertilized lawns and heavily traveled roads. The toxic combination of nitrogen overload and lack of sunlight killed the seagrass and now starvation is killing the manatees, even as frantic rescue efforts continue. Meanwhile, other factors drive manatee mortality, such as boat strikes (it’s a grim fact of life that many manatees can be identified by the patterns of scars and maimed flippers and tails) and entrapment in human-built structures like locks and dams.

The only consolation in this year’s tally: There’s still a chance, if the weather stays relatively mild, that manatees will be able to endure colder waters and reach seagrass beds with food for them to struggle through. But that’s not much cause for celebration, says Save the Manatee director Pat Rose, because 2021 was the most lethal year on record for manatees, with more than 1,100 deaths.

Fewer manatees are left to die, and those fighting for survival are far less likely to produce offspring.

The Orlando Sentinel’s Kevin Spear has been one of the most dogged chroniclers of the manatees’ plight. Last month, he reported on frantic, expensive efforts to replant seagrass in parts of the lagoon, and areas in the lagoon that will be off-limits to boaters.

To read his stories is to sense the undercurrent of despair. Manatees are big animals. They need a lot of food. The sicker and weaker they get, the more vulnerable they become to cold stress as they graze in waters more frigid than they’re accustomed to. It’s going to take years for seagrass beds in warmer parts of the lagoon to fully recover — and that’s only if state officials keep up or accelerate recovery efforts.

Four ways to fight

Here’s where they should start:

Restore the Ocklawaha River. A decades-old failing dam and a series of locks on the river keep most manatees from reaching big springs that could provide winter refuge for hundreds of healthy sea cows — as well as boosting North Central Florida tourism by adding manatee-gazing opportunities at Ocala’s Silver Springs and elsewhere. It’s time to wipe away these relics of a massive environmental folly.

Rebuild the rescue team. Last year, teams were able to rescue more than 160 manatees; this year, they’ve added another 102 so far to that total. But the federally managed Manatee Recovery Program, meant to oversee those efforts and monitor potential new threats, is currently down to two “heroic” people, Rose says. The lack of resources might cause wildlife officials to miss critical warning signs of new threats.

Recognize reality. In retrospect, it’s clear that the thousands of people who protested the downgrade to the manatees’ official status were correct: They are more endangered now than ever. Federal and state officials should acknowledge that and recognize that manatees’ peril demands an immediate return to official endangered status and a lasting commitment to fighting for their survival. Then, rewrite rules to prevent such obvious classification mistakes.

Raise the bar. The plight of the manatees in the Indian River Lagoon is just the most visible marker of a swiftly moving environmental disaster. There’s a lot more at stake. The lagoon’s ravaged seagrass beds are also critical spawning grounds that feed a substantial portion of the state’s $7.6 billion sport-fishing industry — along with a vast array of coastal birds who feed in the waters around their habitual rookeries. Stepping up the efforts to clean up the lagoon will reduce the number of bloated manatee carcasses pulled from these once-crystalline waters — and stave off the threat of another disgusting, toxic algae bloom.

None of this is cheap or easy. But the alternative could be just as costly and painful. There’s already one pending lawsuit against the state and federal agencies that lost their focus on preserving manatee habitat.

This is where sound environmental policy joins forces with Floridians’ unswerving adoration of the gentle sea mammals. Save the manatee and stave off many other environmental threats. Or fail, and watch the state’s economy shrivel and hearts break with every carcass pulled from the water. The choice is obvious, and there’s no time to waste.

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