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Governor Keeping Close Watch on Potential Tropical Storm

September 13th, 2019 by Jake Stofan
The latest track for what could become tropical storm Humberto has moved slightly left or further off the Florida east coast.
In a tweet, Governor Ron DeSantis urged residents to be prepared.
“We are closely monitoring a tropical depression with @FLSERT. Regardless of the exact track or development, Floridians along the East Coast should be prepared for heavy rain and potential flooding, have supplies ready and follow local media for updates,” said DeSantis.
Earlier in the week the Governor urged Floridians to stock up just in case.
“We’re at the height of the season know, and I hope that folks are…if you weren’t fully prepared for Dorian, just think, if you just go now and get a couple things of water, you won’t have to worry about this stuff being off the shelves, but I think you really saw people rushing to do that,” said DeSantis.

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Tallahassee Mass Stabbing Suspect Held Without Bond

September 12th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The man charged with stabbing five co-workers in the state capital on Wednesday appeared in court Thursday morning, where a judge found him to be a danger to the community.

41 year old Antwann Brown bowed his head as he waited for his first appearance before a judge.

Prosecutors told the court the proof of guilt was great.

“Numerous witnesses. He was found on the scene with blood, with a knife,” said Assistant State Attorney of Florida’s Second Judicial Circuit Doug Hall.

The Judge agreed.

“Mr. Brown, the court has great concerns for the safety of our community and and the court is going to be holding you with no bond,” said Judge Nina Ashenafi Richardson.

Minutes before the stabbings, the assailant called his pastor asking for a prayer and forgiveness for what he was about to do.

Prosecutors believe the attacks were premeditated because the assailant told one witness he had cornered “I’m going to spare you this time” just before he left the business and was captured.

Nat sot: “ I was scared. I ran,” said Brown’s co-worker Scottie Washington.

Washington, who only heard the commotion, said the violence surprised him.

“He was a good guy. You know, he was in training to be a pastor. I just don’t know what happened,” said Washington.

Brown lived in the Dwellings, a second chance community in a 220 square foot “tiny” house, paying $600 a month for room and board.

“Many clients out here didn’t know Mr. Brown,” said Monique Ellsworth, CEO of Connecting Everyone with Second Chances. “We sit down and try to really understand what are the needs of the person staying here. What goals and aspirations do they have related to housing or community? There’s a lot of fears on the property about what the rest of Tallahassee is going to thing about the people living out here.”

Brown is being represented by a public defender.

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AG Says Recreational Marijuana Amendment is Too Long

September 12th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

One of the three ballot initiatives hoping to legalize recreational marijuana in Florida has made a formidable opponent… Florida’s Attorney General.

AG Ashley Moody is looking to block the ballot initiative sponsored by Sensible Florida and has asked the Supreme Court to strike down the initiative, in part, because of its length.

The initiative would legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over.

Sensible Florida Chairperson Michael Minardi said most of the amendment language establishes a regulatory framework for the industry.

“It is for the people of Florida and giving the plant back to the people of Florida . It is for the businesses of Florida,” said Minardi.

But Moody argues voters can’t fully understand everything it does based off of the required 75-word ballot summary.

She posted a photo on Twitter of the ten-page amendment hanging from the ceiling and spilling onto the floor, with the caption, “Longer than Article I of our State Constitution”.

We put the AG’s photo to the test, formatting both Article I and the proposed amendment exactly the same.

Both are about six pages, with the amendment about a fourth of a page longer and containing nearly 300 more words.

Of two other recreational marijuana amendments, the first is two pages long and the second is just one paragraph.

But Minardi said the level of detail in the Sensible Florida amendment is actually its strength.

“To make sure that we have the people that want to be involved and cultivate for home use are able to do so and the businesses that want to get involved are able to do so and it’s done and set out clearly in that amendment. So our Legislature cannot thwart the amendment of the voters’ will again,” said Minardi.

The ballot initiative has gathered just shy of 90,000 valid signatures.

Minardi said Sensible Florida is ready to take on the Attorney General when the amendment goes before the Supreme Court.

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North Florida School District Held Hostage By Hackers

September 11th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A North Florida School district is being held hostage by hackers.

Wakulla County schools discovered a ransomeware attack last Thursday and the district and its insurer are still trying to decide if they should pay to regain the use of some critical software programs.

Wakulla Superintendent Robert Pearce said contact with the hackers was made over the weekend.

“They let us know we were being held ransom, and they assigned a bitcoin amount they wanted, and at this time, I’m not allowed to disclose that because this is sill under investigation and we are still in negotiation,” said Pearce.

No student data was taken, but the attack on the 5,000 student district has shut down software used by students to pay for lunches, details on school bus ridership, email and a library software program.

”We can’t get into those files right now. The good news is we can still operate,” said Pearce.

Investigators and the IT department are still sorting out the depth of the damage.

Until that’s known, the option of paying the hackers is still on the table.

“They will ninety nine and forty four percent certain that these folks are legit, have a key, and that’s its worth purchasing before our insurance company would do that,” said Pearce.

Kim Fitzgerald has two nephews in the high school.

“That concerns me. Having to pay, you know, but its just something that happens now-days,” said Fitzgerald. “I mean they are able to get into all of our information and do that, so, I guess we’re all kinda held ransom,, don’t you think?”

This the third known attack on a rural school district in the state.

At least two cities have paid a ransom in recent months including Lake City, which paid a half million dollars to get control of its computers.

In addition to the critical software the ransom-ware has disabled, about 50 classroom computers have been rendered useless and will likely have to be wiped clean.

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Five Hospitalized in Tallahassee Mass Stabbing

September 11th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Five victims are in the hospital after a mass stabbing at a construction material company in the state’s capital city Wednesday morning.

The suspect is in police custody.

One victim is in serious condition.

Police said suspect, Antwann Demetris Brown, got in a verbal confrontation with fellow employees at Dyke Industries Inc near the state capitol and was asked to leave.

Police said the suspect clocked out at 8:20 then allegedly began stabbing fellow employees with a pocket knife.

“He appeared that he actually had sought out certain victims,” said Tallahassee Police Department Interim Chief Steve Outlaw.

Police said employees took matters into their own hands and restrained the suspect, but he broke free when police arrived.

He was then apprehended about a block from the crime scene.

“It actually held him at bay at one point momentarily,” said Outlaw. “That delayed his escape which was very good for us.”

Police leadership was notified while attending a 9/11 memorial service.

“You can’t help but wonder, on the first blush when you hear that, is this related to the anniversary,” said Outlaw.

As of mid-day police said they were still interviewing the suspect, but police said they don’t believe the stabbings and the anniversary are linked.

However, the tragic incident, like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is sure to be a date that lives in infamy for the victims.

“The time you walk into work that next morning, that’s a trigger point. And so you can’t help but have a flashback of what occurred the previous day and this will always be an anniversary day for some of the coworkers,” said Outlaw.

The suspect, Antwann Brown, has a non-violent criminal history dating back to 1996.

He now faces five counts of attempted 1st degree murder and an aggravated assault charge.

Victims are being offered counseling.

The mass stabbing comes as the Florida Senate prepares to hold hearings on mass violence starting next week.

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Environmental Groups Back to Square One in Amendment Lawsuit

September 10th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A lengthy legal battle over a voter approved amendment to fund environmental programs isn’t likely to be settled anytime soon.

A new appellate court ruling has put sponsors back to square one.

When 75 percent of voters approved Amendment One in 2014, many believed they were guaranteeing a funding source for the environment.

The amendment allocated 33 percent of revenues from real-estate documentary stamps to the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund

“We want restored Florida Forever funding, which was $300 million. We want Everglades restoration, which was $200 million and we want some more money going to land management,” said Aliki Moncrief with the Florida Conservation Voters.

Instead of spending the money to purchase and maintain environmental lands, the Legislature used much of it to cover things like administrative costs.

Lawmakers’ spending choices spurred a lawsuit from environmental groups like The Florida Wildlife Federation.

“The Legislature has a history of ignoring what people put in the constitution. They just shifted this money to use it as an environmental slush fund,” said FWF President Preston Robertson.

Despite an initial court victory in 2018, which found 185 appropriations totaling more than $420 million unconstitutional, the groups are now facing a major setback.

An appellate court sent the case back to the trial court without deciding whether the funds are being misused.

For environmental groups, it’s a major disappointment.

“We’re going back to trial and having to argue this all over again,” said Robertson.

The appellate court focused its decision on a narrow aspect of the initial ruling.

It rejected the original judge’s determination that Amendment One funds could only be spent on lands purchased after the amendment took effect in 2015.

For the time being, lawmakers will still be free to use Amendment One money how they see fit, including in the legislative session that begins in January.

However, Moncrief said it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.

“They could fix all of this by passing a budget that actually has actually allocates more funding to programs like Florida Forever and not to business as usual expenses,” said Moncrief.

The court battle is now four-years-old and there’s no clear end in sight.

The clock is ticking.

The amendment is set to expire in 2035.

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Recreational Marijuana Sees Big Cash Infusion

September 10th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

There are five pending amendments for the 2020 ballot that seek to make marijuana more available, but only one of the five appears to have the financial backing to get to the ballot.

Make it Legal Florida is the newest and richest kid on the block when it comes to pushing for legal marijuana.

In its first month it has contributions of just over a million dollars, all coming from two marijuana growers.

“We’re going to get on the ballot,” said Nick Hansen, who is in charge of the campaign.

A recent poll found bipartisan support for recreational marijuana at 67 percent with little drop off when voters were tested with opponents likely arguments.

A 60 percent vote is needed for approval.

“A super majority of Floridians want access, safe and legal access to cannabis,” said Hansen.

Another group, Sensible Florida has collected less than $200,000 in over two years.

Attorney John Morgan, who ran the successful 2016 effort to get medical marijuana on the ballot said it is still possible for one of the groups to get on the ballot, but it’ll be an uphill battle.

“You know, at this late date, you’re going to have to spend ten to fifteen million to get the signatures on the ballot,” said Morgan.

Like the other 11 states with legal marijuana, both petitions limit pot sales to people over 21.

“I’m a father of five, so I completely understand that,” said Hansen. “And I think every parent should know that responsible adults should have access, but there should be safeguards in place from the industry and regulators.”

But Morgan, who sometimes bills himself as ‘Pot Daddy’ said the campaign is going to face well-heeled opponents.

“Never underestimate how important this is to the pharmaceutical industry that this not become an alternative,” said Morgan.

All of which could make the 2020 campaign to legalize marijuana, the most expensive the state has ever seen.

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FSU Breaks into the Top 25, Now Ranked 18th in the Nation

September 9th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The University of South Florida, The University of Florida, and Florida State University all learned they are in the top 25 nationally for public universities Monday.

Florida State is overjoyed after climbing eight spots over last year’s ranking.

Florida State began the year ranked 26th nationally by US News and World Report.

It expected to crack the top 25, but the administrators, and even teh Governor was blown away by Its number 18 ranking.
“To go from 26 to 18 is a remarkable assent,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

FSU is tied with Penn State at 18.

FSU Board Chair Ed Burr was quick to point out the new ranking didn’t cost students.

“Without raising tuition a dime,” said Burr.

Instead, FSU used state money to hire faculty and lower class sizes.

“We now offer over 50 percent of Florida State University classes with fewer than twenty students,” said FSU Provost Sallie McRorrie.

Student Morgan Pleasants said she chose FSU for the setting.

“This campus feels like home,” said Pleasants.

While Jacksonville’s Jalicia Lewis came for other opportunities.

“I have an experience to tell people, employers, graduate schools, that I came from a place that was invested in my growth,” said Lewis.

Seven out of ten, or 72 percent of the students who enroll at FSU, graduate in four years.

It is the best graduation rate in the state.

“We had sixty thousand applications last year,” said FSU President John Thrasher. “These students, these students come here already motivated. All we have to to is make sure they have the pathway correct on where they want to go.”

The number 18 ranking brings high expectations of cracking the top 15 quickly and then into the top ten.

FSU has risen 25 spots among public universities since placing No. 43 in 2016.

FSU moved up to No. 38 on the 2017 list and then to No. 33 on the 2018 list.

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Protecting Yourself from Post-Storm Charity Scams

September 9th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Early damage estimates in the Bahamas range from three to ten billion dollars and many in Florida are looking for ways to help our neighbors to the east.

Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture is warning residents to be wary of scam charities and is highlighting tools that can make sure your donations make the biggest impact.

A quick search for ‘Dorian’ on GoFundMe turns up nearly 6,000 results.

Many of the drives have pulled in tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried says there’s a risk in donating to pop up charities.

“Since Dorian we’ve seen about 140, give or take, charities that have popped up. Our staff has been working overtime to check those charities to make sure that they actually are valid.” Said Fried. “We are starting to see some that aren’t registering properly that unfortunately may be not legit.”

And when a scammer rakes in donations, reputable charities like the American Red Cross suffer.

“For us personally it takes money out of what could go to help the people,” said Sharon Tyler, Chief Executive Officer of the Tallahassee Red Cross.

To make sure you don’t fall victim to a bogus charity, the Florida Division of Consumer Services is urging residents to vet charities through its Check-A-Charity Tool.

“We are going to have zero tolerance,” said Fried. “So anybody who even thinks about defrauding our citizens or our people in general, know that we are going to come after them.”

You can also call 1-800-HELP-FLA to check a charity.

The Division’s call center fields about 700 to 1,000 calls a day.

Charities are the number one inquiry.

Tyler called the tools offered by the state invaluable.

“I think it really behooves everybody to know who you are giving to,” said Tyler.

Those who violate Florida’s charity statutes can face a wide range of fines depending on the offense and could also be charged with a third degree felony.

Click this link to visit the Division of Consumer Services main charity page.

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Lawsuit Aims to End Juvenile Solitary Confinement in Florida

September 6th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A federal lawsuit alleges Florida’s use of solitary confinement in juvenile justice facilities is unconstitutional.
Roughly one out of three children sent into Florida’s juvenile justice system will spend time in solitary confinement.
Many on multiple occasions.
“It’s being used as a kind of punishment of first resort,” said Shalini Goel Agarwal, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The SPLC’s new lawsuit alleges Florida’s use of solitary confinement for youth constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
The suit was filed on behalf of three teenage detainees, two housed in Duval County and another in Volusia County.
One was confined for not attending classes, despite being pregnant.
Another, confined for rough-housing, attempted suicide twice while in solitary.
“50 percent of kids in juvenile detention who commit suicide are in solitary confinement at the time,” said Agarwal.
The suit also alleges juvenile confinement violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“A lot of times the placement in solitary is basically because the child is manifesting their disability and as a result of that DJJ is putting them into solitary confinement rather than providing them with mental health support,” said Agarwal.
The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice’s policy is to confine juveniles for up to 72 hours if they are a harm to themselves or others.
Barney Bishop with Florida Smart Justice Alliance thinks the lawsuit goes to far because it seeks to abolish solitary confinement for juveniles entirely.
“It’s ludicrous on its face because you’re going to have to have solitary confinement for some children in some cases for some limited period of time,” said Bishop.
DJJ declined to comment on this story, saying it does not comment on pending litigation.
The SPLC also recently filed a lawsuit challenging the use of solitary confinement in adult prisons.

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Florida Says Goodbye to Dorian

September 5th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis said the state will send water not needed to quench Floridians after Dorian to the Bahamas, while still maintaining a supply in case another storm approaches.

With the storm gone, state officials conceded they were never confident the storm would make a sharp turn North.

State Emergency Planners applauded the Governor after he thanked them.

Dorian’s damage estimates are minimal, likely in the tens of millions, and primarily to the state’s beaches.

With the storm in the rear view mirror, a relaxed chief executive conceded he was never sure Dorian would make the projected turn North.

“We were on edge that whole time,” said DeSantis. “My theme song was the Byrds, turn, turn turn, just like can it please turn as quickly as possible?”

In May, the Governor left a note in the Western Wall in Jerusalem asking Florida be sparred this hurricane season.

“I mean last week the storm was a beeline, a buzz saw across South Florida, and it kinda stalled out and turned pretty dramatically turned 90 degrees to the north,” said DeSantis. “So if we had a hand in assisting that, I’m not going to argue with the big guy upstairs.”

DeSantis also said the real life drill will help in future storms.
“This really helped a lot of these folks hone their skills and try to make us even better going forward,” said DeSantis.

The Governor also said the state will follow up with nursing homes, many of which don’t have required generators.

The Governor reported two Florida deaths attributed to the storm, including one man who passed in a shelter.

The cause of death is unknown at this time.

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Sea Turtle Nests Hit Hard By Hurricane Dorian

September 5th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

While Florida was relatively unscathed by Hurricane Dorian, the strong surf and high tides took a toll on the east coast.

The damage to the beaches came in the heart of sea turtle nesting season.

While hurricane Dorian didn’t produce the devastating winds on Florida’s East Coast that had been anticipated, it did cause massive waves, which resulted in significant beach erosion.

“Not only can that affect this year’s nest, but if there’s been significant erosion the habitat that’s available for turtles as well as beach nesting birds just won’t be there next year without intervention,” said Executive Director of Audubon Florida Julie Wraithmell.

During the storm some, like one officer seen in a video posted to the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office Facebook Page, did make efforts to save baby turtles.

Immediately after the storm photos like the ones taken in Brevard County by UCF scientist Erin Seney showed devastating losses.

“The Southern part of Brevard County is one of the most densely nested beaches in the country,” said Seney who is part of the UCF Marine Turtle Research Group. “We’re probably looking at a pretty high nest loss.”

Teams are already preparing survey the beaches, but exact losses likely won’t be known for weeks.

On a positive note, while nesting grounds on the east coast suffered losses, turtles don’t put all their eggs in one basket.

Nests on the Gulf shores got away unscathed.

“We can be hopeful that the nesting activities both for turtles as well as for beach nesting birds elsewhere in the state will provide some resiliency for the overall population,” said Wraithmell.

Wratmell added that while damaging, the greatest threat to turtle nesting grounds is not hurricanes, but human infrastructure.

In particular, seawalls, which can cause significant beach erosion.

If you do come across damaged nests or even surviving hatchling the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission urges you not to interfere.

Instead, you should report the nests directly to the agency by calling the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC.

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Florida Spared from Dorian’s Wrath, Quick Recovery Expected

September 4th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

As Hurricane Dorian makes its way past Florida’s east coast the state emergency operations center remains on high alert.
While the state was spared the brunt of Dorian’s destructive force, the storm was an important test run for the new administration.
By Wednesday morning the state emergency operations center was breathing a sigh of relief with Dorian reduced to a CAT 2 hurricane.
Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management Jared Moskowitz said the Governor’s prayer for the state to be protected from hurricanes placed in Jerusalem’s Western Wall earlier this year worked.
“Obviously we’ll continue to put prayers in the wall because that might have had some effect here, because otherwise really if you think about it, it’s really just unexplainable,” said Moskowitz.
The state EOC remains on 24/7 level one activation.
Moskowitz said the focus now shifts to emergency response.
Some minor flooding at the moment, minor power outages, but that’s what we’re looking at. But obviously we’re ready to respond to any contingencies,” said Moskowitz.
This was the new administration’s first storm.
Thankfully, Florida was spared the worst of Dorian’s strength, but lessons learned through this event will help make sure the state is ready for the next threat.
Moskowitz said the state made the right call preparing for the worst possible scenario.
“There’s not going to be any Monday morning quarterbacking of did we over prepare, because the opposite of that is that we would have underprepared for a category five storm,” said Moskowitz.
The Department of Agriculture is now working to redirect leftover supplies like food and water to the Bahamas.
“That’s what America does. We put Americans first, but we also know our responsibility on the global level to protect and help our neighbors,” said Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried.
How long the EOC will remain at level one activation hasn’t been determined yet, but emergency officials said they anticipate a quick recovery.
Hurricane season lasts until November 30th.
The state is asking Floridians to stay prepared.

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Dorian Dredges Up Bad Memories for Hurricane Michael Survivors

September 3rd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Eleven months ago residents in the panhandle were surprised by a category five hurricane that didn’t lose strength as it moved inland.

The sight of Dorian on their television screens has been making them relive one of the scariest days of their lives.

Blue tarps still populate the Blountstown skyline.

Clyde Bailey rode out Hurricane Michael and said Dorian is bringing back bad memories.

“It was a traumatic experience and the anticipation of you know, going through it again is quite devastating to your mental capacity,” said Bailey.

The same is true for Mary Folsom.

She lost a brother more than a decade ago from hurricane spawned tornadoes.

“I have trouble sleeping now because of the hurricanes and tornadoes and stuff like that,” said Folsom.

One of Dorian’s earlier tracks, took the storm across the state into the gulf, and then here to the panhandle.

Blountstown town city manager Traci Hall immediately begin planning for the worst.

“I was not at all very happy. I’m very thankful its not coming our way,” said Hall.

Michael’s One 145 mile per hour winds were a surprise when they blew through the town.

Those we spoke with who rode it out said they wouldn’t do it again.

91-year-old James Glass rode out Michael.

During the storm he watched a tree three feet in diameter snap in his front yard.

“If there’s another one comes here and they name it, I’m gonna run,” said Glass.

Nine out of ten insurance claims in this small town have been settled, but nearly 400 are still pending.

The city is also still waiting for an 11 million reimbursement from FEMA for debris removal.

While most of the physical scars in Blountstown have healed, the mental scars left by Michael are as fresh today as they were 11 months ago, thanks to another monster storm named Dorian.

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Dorian Evacuations See Far Less Traffic Than Hurricane Irma

September 3rd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida remains under a state of emergency as Hurricane Dorian begins to make its way North.

Evacuation orders are still in effect for much of Florida’s east coast, yet traffic across the state has remained relatively clear.

Traffic was miles long and flowing at a snails pace on I-10 west bound in 2017 as six million Floridians tried to escape Hurricane Irma’s path.

ON Tuesday, as Dorian inched up the state’s east coast, traffic was clear.

The Florida Highway Patrol said it’s the same around the state.

“People are just staying home, staying put and through the last monitoring, extremely light traffic patterns,” said FHP Director Col. Gene Spaulding.

During Hurricane Irma the rest stop we visited was essentially converted to a makeshift RV park full of evacuees.

However, after spending an hour there Tuesday, we were only able to find a handful of evacuees escaping Dorian even though 17 Florida counties had issued evacuation orders, 12 of them mandatory.

St Augustine resident Albert Stefanoiu was one of the million Floridians living in an evacuation zone.

He decided not to take any chances.

“It’s best to get out. You can rebuild your home, but you can’t rebuild your life,” said Stefanoiu.

Governor Ron DeSantis said part of the reason Dorian evacuations are running smoother compared to Irma is because the state gave local communities more say in where and when to issue evacuation orders.

“I think it’s worked better,” said DeSantis. “I think there was frustration in the past when people were kind of crisscrossing the state having to evacuate. Actually, some people evacuating into the storm path.”

Unless there’s a major shift in Dorian’s projected path it is unlikely escape routes will face the congestion seen during Irma, which is good news for those still considering evacuating.

While the threat of Dorian appears to be lessening, the Governor continues to urge Floridians to heed evacuation orders.

For an updated list visit Floridadisaster.org/info.

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