Florida, as the nation’s third-largest state, has more than its share of complex challenges.
And this week underscored that there are no easy or quick solutions for the problems, which in some cases have plagued the state for decades.
Nathaniel “Nat” Reed, an environmental icon, passed away. Reed’s public service dates to the 1960s when he worked as an adviser to Gov. Claude Kirk. Reed went on to advise a half-dozen Florida governors and worked in the U.S. Department of Interior under two presidents.
One of Reed’s main passions over his decades of advocacy and advice was the Florida Everglades and the vast water system that covers South Florida.
In the same week of Reed’s death, coastal communities, including Reed’s home county of Martin and other counties in Southeast and Southwest Florida, were struggling with the reemergence of toxic algae that is the result of polluted water releases from Lake Okeechobee.
It was a reminder of Florida’s ongoing efforts to revive the health of the Everglades and related water bodies at the same time the growing state continues to put pressure on the system through agricultural runoff, septic tanks and other activities.
Meanwhile, in Broward County the 16-member Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission continued its daunting task of probing the Feb. 14 mass shooting at the Parkland school and coming up with recommendations that might prevent future tragedies.
One of the themes in the commission’s work is that what happened in Parkland could happen elsewhere in Florida, as commissioners heard testimony this week about problems in law-enforcement communication systems and with the state’s mental-health network.
LAKE ‘OH, NO’
Gov. Rick Scott issued an emergency order this week following an outbreak of toxic algae that was the result of water discharges from Lake Okeechobee by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
After touring the Caloosahatchee River on Monday morning, Scott issued the order for Glades, Hendry, Lee, Martin, Okeechobee, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties “to help combat algal blooms” caused by the discharges into nearby waterways.
The declaration allows the Department of Environmental Protection and the South Florida Water Management District to waive various restrictions and regulations to store water in additional areas south of the lake.
“It is my duty to protect Floridians, no matter what it takes,” Scott said. “Since we are facing more harmful algal blooms from federal water releases, the state is taking a multifaceted approach to protect families.”
Scott ordered the Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to spend more staff time on water testing. The governor also told the DEP to set up a grant program to help local governments pay for clean-up services.
Scott also enlisted the aid of a variety of other agencies to address the toxic waters, including directing state health officials to inform Floridians and visitors of the dangers of algal blooms. He also said the state would work with local tourism officials to try to mitigate the impact of the outbreak on their industry.
Scott blamed the federal government, particularly the Corps of Engineers, for the water problems. But Democrats slammed Scott, a Republican who is challenging U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the Democratic incumbent, in the November election.
“Whether it was cutting budgets, laying off scientific staff, just completely dismantled environmental agencies … he’s spent years fighting with the (federal government) over water quality standards,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters.
But a glimmer of a longer-term solution also emerged this week, as the White House backed Florida’s effort to secure federal funding for a reservoir intended to move water away from Lake Okeechobee and reduce discharges into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.
The request by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to include funding for the roughly $1.6 billion Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir, approved by the state Legislature last year, now heads to the U.S. Senate. The plan is expected to be included as part of America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018.
The state wants the federal government to pay for half of the reservoir project, which was a priority of Florida Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican.
DECIPHERING A TRAGEDY
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission spent three days in Sunrise examining the circumstances surrounding the February mass shooting that killed 14 students and three staff members.
On Wednesday, the commission explored the confusion sparked by 911 calls from frightened teenagers inside the school, parents seeking information about the disaster and others trying to report the sounds of shots being fired.
Depending on how they were made, the emergency calls were answered by several entities, including Broward County and the cities of Coral Springs and Plantation, as law enforcement officials from various communities responded to the shooting and calls from one call center had to be transferred to another.
But the issue of transferring calls from one law enforcement agency to another during a disaster isn’t isolated, according to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the chairman of the commission.
“People here shouldn’t be thinking this is a unique situation or problem to Broward County. It’s not,” Gualtieri said.
On Thursday, the commission heard testimony about Florida’s fractured and overwhelmed mental-health system.
Steve Leifman, a Miami-Dade County judge who is a prominent advocate for improvements in the mental-health system, said of the approximately 200,000 Floridians who were brought for Baker Act examinations last year, just over 1,700 ended up in mental-health facilities. “It’s a fraction,” he said.
He said part of the problem is outdated criteria in the 1971 law, suggesting it should be broadened to adapt to ongoing developments in the science of mental health.
Leifman also said the overall mental-health system remains underfunded, citing data that shows Florida per-capita spending ranks 49th or lower among the states. He said that means roughly one-fifth of residents who need treatment get it, while 80 percent are untreated.
Some commission members were dismayed by testimony that showed although various entities may have known about the emotional and mental problems of Nikolas Cruz, the former student charged with the mass murder, there was little coordination or oversight.
“That’s the cornerstone of what we’re trying to do here because after the fact everybody knew he (Cruz) was going to do it sometime. But none of the dots ever got connected in advance,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, a commission member.
“How do we create a process or a system where we can get all of this individual data together and break down silos and make sure they get services and then we are able to follow their ebbs and flows in the process?” Judd asked.
The commission is working on a set of recommendations that will be given to state officials by Jan. 1.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott issued an emergency order for seven Florida counties after the reemergence of a toxic algae outbreak following the release of water from Lake Okeechobee by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Floridians for generations to come are indebted to Nathaniel Reed for protecting our beautiful environment and our Florida Everglades.” — U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., after the death of Reed, a Jupiter Island resident who advised six Florida governors and two presidents on environmental issues.