Jacob Shapiro, a J.D. Candidate at the Florida State University College of Law, argues that rapid legal actions undertaken by Florida's authorities and efficient cooperation with the federal government helped prepare the state for Hurricane Ian...
Six days prior to Hurricane Ian’s eventual landfall, meteorologists sounded the alarm about a potential impact somewhere on Florida’s west coast. The storm was originally forecast to strike Tampa Bay, but ultimately touched down just south near Fort Myers. Despite the unpredictability of its path, rapid legal action by state government agencies under Governor Ron DeSantis helped prepare Florida for the worst.
On September 23rd, the Governor exercised the emergency powers vested in him by Chapter 252, Florida Statutes, to declare a state of emergency for several counties, and the following day he extended the state of emergency to encompass the entire state. This declaration unlocked critical legal powers entrusted to the Florida governor during states of emergencies, including the ability to authorize the waiver of certain statutes and regulatory rules which might hinder emergency response efforts. For example, the Governor authorized the Florida Department of Transportation to waive the collection of “tolls and other fees and charges for the use of … public highways,” as well as “suspend the enforcement of the registration requirements … for commercial motor vehicles that enter Florida to provide emergency services or supplies…” In doing so, he removed the red tape and ensured that critical supplies could flow into Florida unimpeded for staging and quick deployment following the passage of the storm.
The Governor also invoked his emergency authority to waive prescription medication laws, authorizing pharmacists to dispense extra medication to patients, and allowing Floridians to stockpile enough medication to weather days of sheltering in place.
The Governor further authorized medical professionals with valid licenses in other states to temporarily practice in Florida under the supervision of the American Red Cross or the Florida Department of Health, putting in place the framework for critical healthcare resources to pour into the state in the event of storm-related casualties.
Pursuant to the state of emergency, the Governor also designated Kevin Guthrie, Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM), as the State Coordinating Officer, tasked with executing the State’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan. This enabled Director Guthrie’s team at FDEM’s State Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee to work around the clock to request and coordinate the deployment of crucial resources beginning days before impact. FDEM also invoked the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (“EMAC”) to request mutual aid from states as near as Louisiana, which sent Blackhawk helicopters, and as far as Oregon, which sent members from their State Fire Marshal team to assist in Florida’s time of need. In total, 27 states heeded Florida’s call for mutual aid.
Finally, Governor DeSantis requested that President Biden issue a Major Disaster Declaration under the Stafford Act, a legal mechanism authorizing the federal government to cover many of the costs associated with debris cleanup, search and rescue operations, and mass care. The President’s quick approval enabled Florida to adequately prepare for the storm with the backing of the federal government’s arsenal of funding, and despite their polarized views on governance, both the Governor and the President have admirably put a pause on politics and worked in unison to ensure a cohesive response at both the state and federal level in an encouraging way not often seen in US politics.
Coordination between the state and federal government via the Stafford Act, and between the individual states themselves via EMAC, is a tenet of American emergency management doctrine, and one that was seemingly employed efficiently in the lead-up to Hurricane Ian.
While the number of fatalities and the true scope of the damage caused by Hurricane Ian’s wrath have yet to be determined, what is clear is that competence in leadership and quick legal action by the DeSantis Administration, in conjunction with its federal, local, and private partners, helped prepare the state for the worst storm to hit in years, and pave the way for an effective response and recovery.
Jacob Shapiro is a J.D. Candidate at the Florida State University College of Law.
Suggested citation: Jacob Shapiro, How Rapid Legal Action by Florida Officials Helped Prepare the State for a Catastrophic Hurricane, JURIST – Student Commentary, September 28, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/09/105069/.
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