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Monday, October 30 2017

Hurricane Irma’s damaging rampage through Florida may require the state fund that provides backing to private insurers to pay up to $5.1 billion in claims.

Anne Bert, chief operating officer for the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, said Thursday the fund will be able to pay claims with cash. That means the fund will not have to borrow any money.

The financial health of the fund is important because the state can impose a surcharge on most insurance policies to replenish it if money runs out. Some critics have called the surcharge a “hurricane tax.”

The fund entered storm season in good financial shape and new estimates conclude the fund could borrow up to nearly $8 billion.

The $5.1 billion claims estimate is preliminary, but actuaries said they based it on experience from previous hurricanes.

Copyright 2017 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Tuesday, October 24 2017

An unlicensed contractor from Fort Myers, Fla., has been arrested after he was found to be conducting subpar roof repairs and operating without insurance in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said Oscar M. Palma was arrested this month by the Department of Financial Services’ Disaster Fraud Action Strike Team.

Palma was reported to authorities after allegedly making subpar roof repairs to an area apartment complex following Hurricane Irma. A statement from DFS said an investigation was then launched where fraud detectives found Palma was advertising himself as a licensed and insured contractor, but held no workers’ compensation coverage and was not licensed as a contractor.

“When contractors fail to secure workers’ compensation coverage, a myriad of risks are presented, and we are sending a message that taking short cuts will not be tolerated,” Patronis said. “If any of Palma’s workers were to get injured, the property owners, who are already going through high-stress and costly times dealing with Hurricane Irma damages, or the employee themselves are forced to pay out-of-pocket for medical expenses. Our efforts are focused on ensuring our residents, consumers and employees don’t fall victim to Irma twice, and these types of uninsured activities could cause just that.”

The Department’s Bureau of Workers’ Compensation Compliance received a tip Oct. 12, 2017, alleging unlicensed, uninsured and careless roof work was being performed by Palma’s company. Investigators visited one of Palma’s current work sites and issued a stop work order upon confirming Palma failed to secure workers’ compensation insurance and Palma’s confession to having no professional license.

He was arrested Oct. 13, 2017, and transported to Lee County Jail.

This case will be prosecuted by the Lee County Office of the State Attorney, 20th Judicial Circuit. If convicted, Palma could face up to five years in prison.

DFS’s anti-fraud strike team consists of three teams working in areas heavily impacted by Hurricane Irma including South Florida, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties; Southwest Florida, including Lee and Collier counties; and Central Florida, including Polk and Orange counties. To report suspected fraud, call the Department’s toll-free Fraud Tip Hotline at 1-800-378-0445.

Thursday, October 19 2017

Jennifer Smith doesn’t like the term “accident.” It implies too much chance and too little culpability.

A “crash” killed her mother in 2008, she insists, when her car was broadsided by another vehicle while on her way to pick up cat food. The other driver, a 20-year-old college student, ran a red light while talking on his mobile phone, a distraction that he immediately admitted and cited as the catalyst of the fatal event.

“He was remorseful,” Smith, now 43, said. “He never changed his story.”

Yet in federal records, the death isn’t attributed to distraction or mobile-phone use. It’s just another line item on the grim annual toll taken by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration [NHTSA]—one of 37,262 that year. Three months later, Smith quit her job as a realtor and formed, a nonprofit lobbying and support group. Her intent was to make the tragic loss of her mother an anomaly.

To that end, she has been wildly unsuccessful. Nine years later, the problem of death-by-distraction has gotten much worse.

Over the past two years, after decades of declining deaths on the road, U.S. traffic fatalities surged by 14.4 percent. In 2016 alone, more than 100 people died every day in or near vehicles in America, the first time the country has passed that grim toll in a decade. Regulators, meanwhile, still have no good idea why crash-related deaths are spiking: People are driving longer distances but not tremendously so; total miles were up just 2.2 percent last year. Collectively, we seemed to be speeding and drinking a little more, but not much more than usual. Together, experts say these upticks don’t explain the surge in road deaths.

Three Big Clues

There are however three big clues, and they don’t rest along the highway. One, as you may have guessed, is the substantial increase in smartphone use by U.S. drivers as they drive. From 2014 to 2016, the share of Americans who owned an iPhone, Android phone, or something comparable rose from 75 percent to 81 percent.

The second is the changing way in which Americans use their phones while they drive. These days, we’re pretty much done talking. Texting, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are the order of the day—all activities that require far more attention than simply holding a gadget to your ear or responding to a disembodied voice. By 2015, almost 70 percent of Americans were using their phones to share photos and follow news events via social media. In just two additional years, that figure has jumped to 80 percent.

Finally, the increase in fatalities has been largely among bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians—all of whom are easier to miss from the driver’s seat than, say, a 4,000-pound SUV—especially if you’re glancing up from your phone rather than concentrating on the road. Last year, 5,987 pedestrians were killed by cars in the U.S., almost 1,100 more than in 2014—that’s a 22 percent increase in just two years.

Safety regulators and law enforcement officials certainly understand the danger of taking—or making—a phone call while operating a piece of heavy machinery. They still, however, have no idea just how dangerous it is, because the data just isn’t easily obtained. And as mobile phone traffic continues to shift away from simple voice calls and texts to encrypted social networks, officials increasingly have less of a clue than ever before.

Out of NHTSA’s full 2015 dataset, only 448 deaths were linked to mobile phones—that’s just 1.4 percent of all traffic fatalities. By that measure, drunk driving is 23 times more deadly than using a phone while driving, though studies have shown that both activities behind the wheel constitute (on average) a similar level of impairment. NHTSA has yet to fully crunch its 2016 data, but the agency said deaths tied to distraction actually declined last year.

Deadlier Than Data Shows

There are many reasons to believe mobile phones are far deadlier than NHTSA spreadsheets suggest. Some of the biggest indicators are within the data itself. In more than half of 2015 fatal crashes, motorists were simply going straight down the road—no crossing traffic, rainstorms, or blowouts. Meanwhile, drivers involved in accidents increasingly mowed down things smaller than a Honda Accord, such as pedestrians or cyclists, many of whom occupy the side of the road or the sidewalk next to it. Fatalities increased inordinately among motorcyclists (up 6.2 percent in 2016) and pedestrians (up 9 percent).

“Honestly, I think the real number of fatalities tied to cell phones is at least three times the federal figure,” Jennifer Smith said. “We’re all addicted and the scale of this is unheard of.”

In a recent study, the nonprofit National Safety Council found only about half of fatal crashes tied to known mobile phone use were coded as such in NHTSA databases. In other words, according to the NSC, NHTSA’s figures for distraction-related death are too low.

Perhaps more telling are the findings of Zendrive Inc., a San Francisco startup that analyzes smartphone data to help insurers of commercial fleets assess safety risks. In a study of 3 million people, it found drivers using their mobile phone during 88 percent of trips. The true number is probably even higher because Zendrive didn’t capture instances when phones were mounted in a fixed position—so-called hands free technology, which is also considered dangerous.

“It’s definitely frightening,” said Jonathan Matus, Zendrive’s co-founder and chief executive officer. “Pretty much everybody is using their phone while driving.”

There are, by now, myriad technological nannies that freeze smartphone activity. Most notably, a recent version of Apple’s iOS operating system can be configured to keep a phone asleep when its owner is driving and to send an automated text response to incoming messages. However, the “Do Not Disturb” function can be overridden by the person trying to get in touch. More critically, safety advocates note that such systems require an opt-in from the same users who have difficulty ignoring their phones in the first place.

State Data Collection

In NHTSA’s defense, its tally of mobile phone-related deaths is only as good as the data it gets from individual states, each of which has its own methods for diagnosing and detailing the cause of a crash. Each state in turn relies on its various municipalities to compile crash metrics—and they often do things differently, too.

The data from each state is compiled from accident reports filed by local police, most of which don’t prompt officers to consider mobile phone distraction as an underlying cause. Only 11 states use reporting forms that contain a field for police to tick-off mobile-phone distraction, while 27 have a space to note distraction in general as a potential cause of the accident.

The fine print seems to make a difference. Tennessee, for example, has one of the most thorough accident report forms in the country, a document that asks police to evaluate both distractions in general and mobile phones in particular. Of the 448 accidents involving a phone in 2015 as reported by NHTSA, 84 occurred in Tennessee. That means, a state with 2 percent of the country’s population accounted for 19 percent of its phone-related driving deaths. As in polling, it really depends on how you ask the question.

“Crash investigators are told to catch up with this technology phenomenon”

Massachusetts State Police Sergeant Christopher Sanchez, a national expert on distracted driving, said many police departments still focus on drinking or drug use when investigating a crash. Also, figuring out whether a mobile phone was in use at the time of a crash is usually is getting trickier every day—proving that it precipitated the event can be even harder to do.

Prosecutors have a similar bias. Currently, it’s illegal for drivers to use a handheld phone at all in 15 states, and texting while driving is specifically barred in 47 states. But getting mobile phone records after a crash typically involves a court order and, and even then, the records may not show much activity beyond a call or text. If police provide solid evidence of speeding, drinking, drugs or some other violation, lawyers won’t bother pursuing distraction as a cause.

“Crash investigators are told to catch up with this technology phenomenon—and it’s hard,” Sanchez said. “Every year new apps are developed that make it even more difficult.” Officers in Arizona and Montana, meanwhile, don’t have to bother, since they allow mobile phone use while you drive. And in Missouri, police only have to monitor drivers under age 21 who pick up their phone while driving.

Like Smith, Emily Stein, 36, lost a parent to the streets. Ever since her father was killed by a distracted driver in 2011, she sometimes finds herself doing unscientific surveys. She’ll sit in front of her home in the suburbs west of Boston and watch how many passing drivers glance down at their phones.

“I tell my local police department: ‘If you come here, sit on my stoop and hand out tickets. You’d generate a lot of revenue,'” she said.

Since forming the Safe Roads Alliance five years ago, Stein talks to the police regularly. “A lot of them say it surpasses drunk driving at this point,” she said. Meanwhile, grieving families and safety advocates such as her are still struggling to pass legislation mandating hands-free-only use of phones while driving—Iowa and Texas just got around to banning texting behind the wheel.

“The argument is always that it’s big government,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “The other issue is that … it’s hard to ban something that we all do, and we know that we want to do.”

“We all know what’s going on, but we don’t have a breathalyzer for a phone”

Safety advocates such as Smith say lawmakers, investigators and prosecutors won’t prioritize the danger of mobile phones in vehicles until they are seen as a sizable problem—as big as drinking, say. Yet, it won’t be measured as such until it’s a priority for lawmakers, investigators and prosecutors.

“That’s the catch-22 here,” Smith said. “We all know what’s going on, but we don’t have a breathalyzer for a phone.”

Perhaps the lawmakers who vote against curbing phone use in cars should watch the heart-wrenching 36-minute documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog made on the subject. Laudably, the piece, From One Second to the Next, was bankrolled by the country’s major cellular companies. “It’s not just an accident,” Herzog said of the fatalities. “It’s a new form of culture coming at us, and it’s coming with great vehemence.”

Adkins has watched smartphone culture overtake much of his work in 10 years at the helm of the GHSA, growing increasingly frustrated with the mounting death toll and what he calls clear underreporting of mobile phone fatalities. But he doesn’t think the numbers will come down until a backlash takes hold, one where it’s viewed as shameful to drive while using a phone. Herzog’s documentary, it appears, has had little effect in its four years on At this point, Adkins is simply holding out for gains in autonomous driving technology.

“I use the cocktail party example,” he explained. “If you’re at a cocktail party and say, ‘I was so hammered the other day, and I got behind the wheel,’ people will be outraged. But if you say the same thing about using a cell phone, it won’t be a big deal. It is still acceptable, and that’s the problem.”

Monday, October 16 2017

Florida’s famous oranges are still falling from trees and rotting on the ground weeks after Hurricane Irma, and the state’s agriculture commissioner said Thursday there will be fewer Florida vegetables on Thanksgiving tables and a shortage of poinsettias at Christmas.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Florida farmers updated the state Senate Agriculture Committee that the storm damaged crops of all kinds, with losses topping $2.5 billion. Losses are reported to peanuts, avocadoes, sugar, strawberries, cotton and tomatoes. The storm also affected timber, milk production and lobster and stone crab fishing.

“The fresh winter vegetables that are on people’s Thanksgiving tables won’t be there this year because of Hurricane Irma,” Putnam said. “The losses are staggering; in many cases, the tale of those losses will be multiple years … This is more than just damage contained in just one crop year.”

He said Irma’s path couldn’t have been “more lethal” for Florida agriculture, with few crops spared. The citrus industry was particularly hard hit, with some estimates of more than half the orange crop lost.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its Florida citrus forecast Thursday, estimating that Florida will produce 54 million boxes of oranges, down 21 percent from last year.

But the Florida Citrus Mutual said the federal government should have delayed the forecast because it’s still too early to tell just how hard hit the industry was after the storm. It said production would be closer to 31 million boxes of oranges, or a 55 percent drop from the 68.7 million boxes produced in the 2016-2017 season.

“Irma hit us just a month ago and although we respect the skill and professionalism of the USDA, there is no way they can put out a reliable number in that short time period,” said Michael W. Sparks, CEO of the Florida Citrus Mutual.

The agricultural losses are expected to affect consumers, but how much so is still to be determined.

“I would expect prices to rise as a result of the winter vegetable capital of America being put out of the production going into the holiday season,” Putnam said, but he added that there could be a flood of foreign fruit and produce entering the market that could keep prices from rising – something he said could further hurt Florida farmers.

“That could, over time, replace market share that should be going to Florida’s farmers,” he said.

Committee Chairwoman Sen. Denise Grimsley talked about the damage she’s seen in her family’s orange groves.

“The fruit on the ground was so thick it was hard to walk through, and the smell is now bad because of the rotting fruit,” she said.

Putnam’s family also farms orange groves. He told reporters they’ve lost about half the crop.

“It’s not good,” he said. “You can stand in the grove and continue to hear fruit fall. It’s a double kick in the gut because this was the best crop we’ve set in years. We had better crop, better crop size, more fruit on the trees than I’ve seen in years. It was finally a crop to be proud of and now it’s laying on the ground.”

Thursday, October 12 2017

House lawmakers unveiled a bill Tuesday night that would provide $36.5 billion in emergency funding for hurricane and wildfire relief requested by the Trump administration.

With Congress under pressure to provide urgent help to storm victims in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, the House measure includes $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund, as well as $16 billion to replenish the nation’s flood insurance program.

The FEMA funding includes a provision that would give Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands access to $4.9 billion in low-interest Treasury loans so they doesn’t run out of cash as the islands recovers. That funding is needed to help the territory pay government salaries and other expenses after Oct. 31. House Speaker Paul Ryan said the bill will be on the House floor Thursday for a vote, after which it could taken up by the Senate when that chamber returns next week.

“Harvey, Irma, Maria, they’ve been devastating for Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico,” Ryan said at a news conference Wednesday. “This is a time when we here in Congress need to respond because that is our responsibility.”

House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey said, “You have a lot of people in pain,” adding that he expects the next tranche of aid to be passed before December. “I think there is some momentum to get some money out the door as quickly as possible.”

Congress needs to act quickly, particularly when it comes to flood insurance. The National Flood Insurance Program needs additional funding to cover claims from all the recent storms.

The bill will be brought to a vote as soon as Thursday under a fast-track procedure that will require Democratic votes to pass. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California praised the measure.

An aide to Pelosi said she fought for two items included in the bill: loans for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, also suffering from hurricane damage, and $1 billion in disaster funds over the White House request in light of California wildfires. The bill includes no flood insurance policy changes, which the aide said is a victory, after Republicans had discussed revisions to the program.

Representative Mark Walker of North Carolina, who heads the conservative Republican Study Committee, said he is disappointed the measure doesn’t include any spending cuts to offset the disaster funding and still trying to decide whether to vote for it.

“This is a very frustrating place,” he said Wednesday.

Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican and member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said he won’t support the bill because there aren’t plans to offset the costs and because there aren’t changes to the flood insurance program.

Several other lawmakers, from both parties, said they’d support the legislation.

Texas Republican Blake Farenthold said: “They don’t have to sell me on that one.”

Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, said disaster victims deserve help from the federal government. “This package provides critical public and individual disaster assistance, flood insurance aid, liquidity for Puerto Rico’s government, and help for communities devastated by wildfires,” she said in a statement.

The loan authority for Puerto Rico is also a needed financial lifeline for the U.S. territory of 3.4 million people that’s been operating in bankruptcy since May, which makes it difficult — if not impossible — for the government to borrow on its own.

With the island still recovering from the storm, much of the economy there has ground to a halt, radically curtailing the government’s tax collections. Puerto Rico’s treasury secretary, Raul Maldonado, said last week that the territory faces a government shutdown on Oct. 31 that would halt its hurricane recovery efforts if Congress doesn’t intervene.

The package includes a $150 million advance to cover a matching-funds requirement from the commonwealth, an administration official said. It would be available for easing short-term expenses such as payroll and pension payments, though not for debt service on bonds.

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria is threatening to exacerbate the financial crisis that had already pushed the island into a series of record-setting defaults on its $74 billion of debt. The scale of the damage, which has left most of the island without electricity almost three weeks after the storm, has caused Puerto Rico bond prices to tumble as investors speculate they’re likely to recoup even less of their investments.

Puerto Rico’s delegate to Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez Colon, said at a news conference with House Republican leaders Wednesday that she was pleased that the aid plan will help the island deal with the “humanitarian crisis.”

“We still have a dire situation on the island,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not easy when you’re used to living in an American way of life and then somebody tells you that you’re going to be without power for six or eight months.”

“We’re still counting the fatalities,” she said, with 45 dead as of Wednesday. More than 86 percent of the population still lacks electricity and more than 44 percent is without running water, Gonzalez said.

One notable omission from the broader funding measure is additional funding for the Community Development Block Grant Program at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which a bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers had asked to be included in this measure.

“I am counting on the next supplemental having the extra funds for Texas” Representative John Carter of Texas, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittee said.

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