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Thursday, Nov 15, 2018
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Editorial: Focus on Hurricane Florence, not defending poor response in Puerto Rico

Hurricane Florence began lashing down on the Carolinas Thursday and was expected to make landfall early Friday, washing over dunes, downing trees and power lines and putting some 10 million people in the path of a potentially catastrophic storm. Florida needs to stand ready to help its neighbors to the north even as it prepares for the remainder of hurricane season. President Donald Trump can do his part by getting off Twitter, stop rewriting history about the governmentís poor post-hurricane performance in Puerto Rico and focusing on the nationís response to the upcoming recovery effort.

Florenceís winds weakened Thursday to a Category 2 as it approached the coast, but the storm also grew in width, with impacts extending more than 400 miles. Forecasters said the hurricane would come ashore today at the North Carolina-South Carolina border, where a loss of steering winds will grind it to a crawl, threatening a deluge of up to 40 inches of rain in the coming week and up to 13 feet of storm surge across the Carolinas.

This avalanche of water will pose grave risks across several southern states. Authorities did a good job in calling for nearly 2 million people to evacuate and in staging emergency supplies, crews and equipment ahead of the stormís path to respond more quickly once Florence has passed. Gov. Rick Scott appropriately lent the Sunshine Stateís expertise in deploying two search and rescue teams, six medical squads and others from the stateís emergency response office to help with the operation. More than 2,000 Florida utility workers were also sent to help restore power after the storm, including more than 1,100 from Duke Energy Florida and about 250 from Tampa Electric. With as many as 2.4 million people who could lose power in the coming days, this show of support was the right thing to do and will help to get the region back on its feet more speedily.

Trump didnít let an impending national disaster affect his Twitter rants. He praised himself and his administration for an "incredibly successful" job in responding to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year ó even though the most recent assessments say the storm claimed nearly 3,000 lives on the island. On Thursday, even with Florence nearing the Carolinas, the president wouldnít move on, falsely accusing Democrats of inflating the death toll in Puerto Rico to make him look bad. It was too much even for Florida Republicans who have long been comfortable carrying Trumpís water. "I disagree with (Trump)," Scott tweeted. "Iíve been to Puerto Rico 7 times & saw devastation firsthand." Sen. Marco Rubio acknowledged a high death toll and tweeted the early response "wasnít good."

Trump should be giving the Federal Emergency Management Agency the support it needs and coordinating with the states. He should also be pressing Congress for a durable fix to the National Flood Insurance Program, which protects large swaths of Florida but forces Florida homeowners to subsidize policyholders across the country. Congress needs to fashion a catastrophic insurance policy that spreads the risk, more fairly apportions rates and discourages building in high-risk areas. The federal government and the states also need to more seriously address the impacts of sea level rise and other effects of climate change.

Floridians should stand ready to aid Florence victims while staying on guard through the rest of the season. Tampa Bay has learned some lessons from Hurricane Irma last year. Both Duke and TECO are throwing more money at tree maintenance across their service areas ó a necessary step, given that swaying and fallen tree limbs were the main cause in power being knocked out to 6.7 million Floridians during Irma. Now itís time to turn attention to Florence and the southeast, and to help and learn what we can to prepare and respond even better to the next hurricane.

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