Brendan Farrington - SaintPetersBlog

Brendan Farrington

Florida passes bill to issue certificates for miscarriages

Florida could become the first state to issue what’s essentially a birth certificate for women who’ve had miscarriages under a bill the Legislature sent to Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday.

The Grieving Families Act would give parents the option of receiving a state-issued certificate if a pregnancy is lost between nine weeks and 20 weeks of gestation.

“The parent can name the child if they have a gender or they can just name it Baby Smith,” said Republican Rep. Bob Cortes, the bill’s House sponsor. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, somebody in life has been touched through a miscarriage and they understand how important this is as part of the grieving process.”

The Senate passed the bill unanimously Thursday, three weeks after the House passed it on a 115-1 vote. The bill was worded in a way to ensure it wouldn’t spark a partisan argument over whether the state was trying to define life.

“This has nothing to do with personhood,” said Democratic Sen. Lauren Book, who said she received calls from people concerned about the bill. “It rather gives families that are grieving during a very difficult time some closure.”

Pregnancies that end at 20 weeks or later are considered stillbirths and death certificates must be issued. Parents can also request a birth certificate in such cases. A handful of states allow death certificates to be issued to women who’ve had miscarriages, but Cortes said Florida would be the first to issue what would be called “certificates of nonviable birth.”

He said many couples who grieve after a miscarriage already seek out certificates.

“They’re doing it right now, they’re just paying ungodly amounts of money for a fake certificate on the internet,” he said. “You have parents that have had miscarriages at 19 weeks and they find out after the grieving process that one more week and they could have gotten a certificate, and now they can’t get it.”

The certificate would contain language that it is not to be used as proof of a live birth.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Helping kids who make mistakes: Florida considering 2 ideas

There’s widespread agreement between lawmakers, law enforcement and child advocates that the state can do more to help juveniles who make stupid mistakes to stay out of trouble and avoid a criminal record that could follow them the rest of their lives.

But what approach it should take is still a matter of disagreement.

“Everybody’s heart is absolutely in the right place wanting to decriminalize being a youth in Florida, it’s just a matter of how to go about it,” said Mary Slapp, vice president of Teen Court of Sarasota, a juvenile diversion program in which offenders are tried by other teenagers and sentenced to community service.

There are two bills moving through the Legislature aimed at helping young offenders by getting them into diversion programs, like teen court, after they’ve committed their first misdemeanor crime.

A Senate bill would mandate that law enforcement issue a civil citation after a first juvenile arrest for a list of specific misdemeanors and a House bill would automatically expunge a youth’s arrest record after a diversion program is completed.

All sides agree the expansion of civil citation programs around the state has helped keep youth from committing more crimes, but tinkering with the program to improve it is where it gets complicated.

Republican Sen. Anitere Flores said the program has been inconsistent from county to county and she points to statistics that show civil citations are issued instead of arrest in only little more than half the cases where youth are eligible for them. According to Department of Juvenile Justice statistics, 8,831 youths eligible for civil citations were arrested, while 9,696 were issued citations.

“That’s a lot of kids,” she said. “Having the lack of uniformity means that some kids are getting a second chance and a whole bunch of other kids aren’t.”

Her bill requires civil citations in cases like alcohol possession, battery, trespass, theft, prowling, resisting an officer without violence and others. State statistics show that about 4 percent of youths who go through the civil citation program commit crimes again.

Republican Rep. Larry Ahern also believes in the civil citation program, but he doesn’t believe in forcing mandates on law enforcement. His bill would try to help first-time juvenile offenders while allowing police officers the discretion to decide when a citation is appropriate. As well as expunging records, it would legally allow people who’ve completed diversion programs to deny the arrest ever occurred when applying for a job, housing or the like.

It also would apply to any misdemeanor, not just a limited list.

“The record that follows a juvenile through their adulthood over a stupid mistake was a big part of the equation, so how do you eliminate that?” Ahern said.

The Florida Sheriff’s Association is backing the Ahern bill and opposed to the Flores bill. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri cited several hypothetical scenarios where arrests would be more appropriate than a civil citation, such as a drunken teenager on a beach creating a disturbance and resisting officers, or a teenager prowling in a backyard who is clearly about to break into a home.

Gualtieri said the sheriffs worked with Ahern on the different approach.

“We have offered something that absolutely takes care of the problem, what does the mandate do that our solution doesn’t do?” Gualtieri said.

While Slapp said civil citation is a good tool, she believes neither bill addresses problems with a lack of flexibility in the current program, such as a limit on three citations. She also said there are certain felony situations that don’t qualify for a civil citation, but where a diversion program would be more appropriate than an arrest, such as when a youth who takes a joyride on a golf cart doesn’t realize it’s a felony motor vehicle theft.

That’s what happened to Katy McBrayer. She was a straight A student and well-behaved at 14 when she started dating an 18-year-old who introduced her to drugs. She started making bad decisions, skipping school and staying away from home. Then she was caught driving a golf cart off a school’s property. Neither the Flores nor Ahern bill would have applied in her case because it was a felony.

She got in trouble again, for burglary and marijuana possession, and was allowed the option of going to teen court rather than to trial.

She mended her relationship with her parents, went to night school and ended up earning a college scholarship.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Court: Florida dairy’s skim milk is skim milk, not imitation

A small, all-natural dairy isn’t being deceptive when it calls its skim milk “skim milk,” a federal appeals court ruled Monday in a victory for the creamery that’s fighting the state’s demand to label the product “imitation” because vitamins aren’t added to it.

The ruling overturns a decision last March when a federal judge sided with the Florida Department of Agriculture, which said the Ocheesee Creamery couldn’t label it’s skim milk “skim milk” because the state defines the product as skim milk with Vitamin A added. The state instead said that if the creamery wanted to sell the product, it should label it as “imitation” skim milk.

That didn’t sit well with a dairy whose whole philosophy is not to add ingredients to natural products. So instead of complying, the creamery has dumped thousands of gallons of skim milk down the drain rather than label it as an imitation milk product.

“The State was unable to show that forbidding the Creamery from using the term ‘skim milk’ was reasonable,” the three-judge, Jacksonville-based panel wrote in its ruling.

The court said the state disregarded far less restrictive and more precise ways of labeling the product, “for example, allowing skim milk to be called what it is and merely requiring a disclosure that it lacks vitamin A.”

The Institute for Justice is representing Ocheesee Creamery owner Mary Lou Wesselhoeft in the lawsuit against the state.

“All Mary Lou wants to do is sell skim milk that contains literally one ingredient – pasteurized skim milk – and label it as pasteurized skim milk,” Institute for Justice lawyer Justin Pearson said in a press release.

The creamery, about 50 miles west of the state capital, has offered to put on its label that it doesn’t add vitamins to the product, but the state hasn’t accepted the compromise. It was selling between 100 and 300 gallons of skim milk a week for $5 a gallon before the dispute. The product made up about 25 percent of its profits.

The dictionary definition of skim milk is simply milk with the cream removed. But the Department of Agriculture says under state and federal law, skim milk can’t be sold as skim milk unless vitamins in the milk fat are replaced so it has the same nutritional value as whole milk.

The department didn’t immediately return phone calls and an email seeking comment.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

State could flip burden of proving ‘Stand Your Ground’

Florida’s “stand your ground” law, a source of contention for years, could soon provide even more protection to people who invoke it. Some lawmakers want to make prosecutors prove a defendant wasn’t acting in self-defense before proceeding to trial.

Florida has been a leader in giving citizens immunity in cases of self-defense, with its “stand your ground” law serving as an emotional point of debate after several high-profile shooting deaths, including that of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.

While at least 22 states have similar laws that say people can use force – even deadly force – to defend themselves from threats, Florida could soon be alone shifting the burden of proof to prosecutors.

Republican Sen. Rob Bradley says his bill “isn’t a novel concept.”

“We have a tradition in our criminal justice system that the burden of proof is with the government from the beginning of the case to the end,” he said.

Florida’s Supreme Court has ruled that the burden of proof is on defendants during self-defense immunity hearings. That’s the practice around the country. According to a legislative staff analysis of Bradley’s bill, only four states mention burden of proof in their “stand your ground” laws – Alabama, Colorado, Georgia and South Carolina – and all place the burden on defendants.

Bradley’s bill died last year but now its chances are improving: It’s ready for a full Senate vote when the session begins next week, and one of two House committees assigned to hear it has approved it.

Democrats are opposing the bill, but have little leverage to stop it in a legislature dominated by Republicans and with a Republican governor.

The bill has received passionate opposition from people who feel the existing law has already been abused and will be invoked even more by people seeking to avoid responsibility for violent crimes.

Stand your ground is not just about guns: The defense can be invoked after any act of violence aimed at self-protection, whether it’s punching, stabbing, shooting or striking someone with an object.

Neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman‘s fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin isn’t the only case that’s part of the debate in Florida.

Lucy McBath‘s 17-year-old son Jordan Davis was fatally shot by Michael Dunn during an argument over loud music outside a Jacksonville convenience store. And in the Tampa Bay area, retired police officer Curtis Reeves is claiming self-defense in a “stand your ground” pretrial hearing after fatally shooting Chad Oulson in a dispute over a cellphone at a movie theater.

Both Zimmerman and Dunn claimed self-defense at trial and “stand your ground” was included in their juries’ instructions. Zimmerman was acquitted and Dunn was eventually convicted of murder.

McBath believes the way the law currently reads is why Dunn’s first jury couldn’t reach a decision, and says expanding “stand your ground” protections would make it harder to keep people safe from gun violence.

Testifying against the bill at a Senate committee meeting, McBath said the current law already “encourages citizens to shoot first and ask questions later.”

“This legislation would effectively require defendants who raise stand your ground defenses to be convicted twice,” she said. “Having lived through this grueling experience firsthand with two trials for my son’s murder, I can attest to the anguish and the pain that this process elicits. We should not make it harder for family members to achieve the justice that they deserve.”

Marissa Alexander, in contrast, supports Bradley’s bill. She unsuccessfully tried a “stand your ground” defense and was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2012 for firing a gun near her estranged husband. She called it a “warning shot” to protect herself from abuse. Her conviction was thrown out on appeal and she was freed after reaching a plea deal in 2014.

“I feel like you go into that kind of situation guilty until proven innocent,” she said. She hopes Florida will start another trend if it passes.

“Florida kind of sets the tone and other states follow,” she said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Tale of 2 parties: Florida GOP high, Dems low ahead of 2018

The state Republican and Democratic parties met two miles from each other Saturday, their first meetings since Donald Trump carried Florida in November’s election, but the atmosphere and enthusiasm were worlds apart.

As both parties chose their leaders, it was easy to see which has more confidence heading into an election cycle when the governor’s office and all three Cabinet seats will be open. Republicans were aglow in victory after Trump stunned many political observers by winning the state Barack Obama carried in 2008 and 2012. At the same time, Democrats held a contentious election to choose a new chairman with little talk about this past election.

“How good does this feel? We defied the mainstream media, we defied conventional wisdom, defied the pollsters,” Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam told GOP county chairs. “Right across town, Democrats are having their election and they’re not feeling near as good.”

As both parties prepare for 2018, Republicans are focused on how to build off the momentum Trump built with voters who traditionally haven’t been part of the political process while Democrats elected wealthy real estate developer and major party donor Stephen Bittel as chairman in hopes of ending two decades of futility at the polls.

“Donald Trump got a lot of people off of the couch and got them involved. It is our job at the Republican Party of Florida to harness all of that passion, all of that energy, and keep them in the game,” said state GOP Chairman Blaise Ingoglia, who was easily re-elected. “And when we do, and mark my words we will do it, we will cripple the Democrat Party for a generation.”

After the Democrats elected Bittel, a group of protesters stood outside the meeting room holding signs that read, “SHAME,” ”This is not the party of the people” and “People over $$.”

Still, Bittel tried to paint the best picture of the party’s future.

“We have had an under-resourced operation in Florida for a long time. That changes, starting today, and we will build a different kind of party, I’m a different kind leader and we will change things,” Bittel said. “I grew up in Florida in an era when we won everything. I’m looking forward to that era again.”

But Bittel, 60, grew up more than four decades ago, and there’s a new generation of Democrats who have rarely seen victory.

Florida hasn’t elected a Democrat as governor since 1994. They’ve lost 14 of the past 15 Cabinet races. And despite Democrats’ success in passing a ballot initiative that requires political districts to be drawn in a way that doesn’t favor parties or incumbents, Republicans maintain huge majorities in the Legislature and hold 16 of Florida’s 27 U.S. House seats.

Republicans appear better situated heading into a critical state election. Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the three GOP Cabinet members, including Putnam, are leaving office because of term limits. Also in 2018, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is seeking a fourth term, and it’s widely thought Scott will challenge him in what could be Nelson’s toughest re-election yet.

But despite under-performing again in 2016, Democrats think 2018 can be different. Democratic strategist and former state party political director Christian Ulvert pointed at several pluses. First, Nelson, the one consistently successful Florida Democrat since 2000, will be on the ballot.

“This year, we have a potential for Bill Nelson setting the tone, to really set the stage from the top down,” Ulvert said.

He also said the party has a rich field of popular city mayors who could be on the ballot for statewide races, including Fort Lauderdale’s Jack Seiler, Tampa’s Bob Buckhorn, Miami Beach’s Philip Levine, Orlando’s Buddy Dyer and Tallahassee’s Andrew Gillum.

Putnam, who is likely to run for governor, warned Republicans that despite their successes, the party cannot become complacent.

“We can’t get arrogant and cocky and lose our way,” Putnam said. “We can’t take anything for granted.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Husband’s cancer is a factor in Gwen Graham’s decision to run for governor

Democratic U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham says she wants to run for governor, and she plans to run for governor. But there’s one very important factor that’s weighing on her decision: her husband has cancer.

“Every part of me wants to run for governor, that’s what I feel passionate about, that’s what I know I need to do for the state of Florida, but things happen in life that could take me off that path. I hope not,” Graham said Wednesday evening while conducting her last “work day” as a congresswoman — helping sell Christmas trees at an outdoor stand.

The work days were a signature of her father Bob Graham‘s time as Florida governor and a U.S. senator. Like her father, she spends time experiencing different jobs as a way to reach out to constituents and voters.

She decided not to seek a second term in Congress after the Florida Supreme Court ordered new congressional districts be drawn so that don’t favor incumbents or political parties. Graham’s district became far more Republican and she decided to explore a 2018 run for governor rather than risk re-election.

She sounded a lot like a candidate when talking with reporters outside the Christmas tree stand, saying she plans to campaign in all 67 counties and discussing her campaign strategy. But she said she’s waiting to see how treatment progresses on her husband Steve Hurm‘s prostate cancer.

“He absolutely wants me to run. He’s very supportive of that and I couldn’t do it without him by my side,” she said. “I wouldn’t do it without him by my side.”

Republican Gov. Rick Scott is leaving office in 2019 due to term limits. Among other Democrats believed to be considering a run are Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and trial lawyer John Morgan. Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is also considering a run.

The Republican Governors Association is already preparing for a potential Graham candidacy, wasting little time after this year’s election to begin attacking Graham in news releases. The association called Graham “just another Washington politician.” Graham hadn’t held elected office before winning her House seat two years ago.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

It’s likely to be a close election in Florida, again

Another close election in Florida? Count on it.

Through Friday, 2,268,663 Democrats and 2,261,383 Republicans had cast ballots by mail or at early voting sites – a difference of 7,280 in favor of Democrats. Overall, more than 5.7 million Floridians have voted, or nearly 45 percent of those registered. That far surpasses 2012 totals, when 4.8 million Floridians cast ballots before Election Day.

As early voting was set to end in 51 of Florida’s 67 counties Saturday, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump once again were campaigning in the Sunshine State. Their running mates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence and other top surrogates have been frequent visitors in the state that’s a must-win for Trump’s presidential campaign.

“How many of you have already voted?” Clinton asked a crowd in Broward County. The response was enthusiastic cheers. “OK, so that means you’ve got time to get everybody else to get out and vote, right?”

Earlier in Tampa, Trump told supporters at a rally that 66 of the state’s 67 counties supported him in Florida’s primary last March.

“Florida is just a place I love – my second home, I’m here all the time. I might know Florida better than you do,” Trump said. “I see maybe more enthusiasm right now than I did (in March).”

Florida’s 29 electoral votes are the biggest prize in Tuesday’s presidential election among states that could swing to either candidate. In 2000, Florida set the standard for close presidential elections when George W. Bush beat Al Gore by 537 votes out of about 6 million cast. It took five weeks to call the election in the state that determined the presidency.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio was campaigning across north Florida Saturday, starting with an event at a Pensacola Beach bar. He’s being challenged by Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy.

Unlike Murphy, Rubio has avoided campaigning with his party’s presidential nominee. While he supports Trump, he has condemned his words and behavior.

Murphy attended a Broward County rally with Clinton and later planned to attend a St. Petersburg concert with singer Jon Bon Jovi and Kaine.

While only 16 counties will continue early voting on Sunday, they are some of the state’s largest, including Democratic strongholds of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. Democrats were planning “souls to the polls” events encouraging African-American churchgoers to take advantage of the last day of early voting in the counties where polls will be open.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

ACLU asks court to continue to block abortion waiting period

A lawyer representing an abortion clinic told the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday that the state’s 24-hour waiting period would significantly restrict a woman’s right to abortion and asked justices to continue blocking the law until a lower court can decide whether it’s constitutional.

The delays could lead to victims of domestic abuse being forced to forgo an abortion, or cause additional emotional distress for women who have a doomed pregnancy, said Julia Kaye, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer representing a Gainesville clinic. She said it could also mean the difference between using drugs to end a pregnancy rather than surgery.

“Women think long and hard about this decision and take it very seriously,” said Kaye. She added that if woman aren’t ready for an abortion, they can already wait before deciding whether to go through the procedure. “This law actually only impacts the women who are already ready, the women who do not want or need to delay their procedure any longer.”

The state attorney general’s office argued that the law doesn’t create significant burdens for women and the waiting period is necessary because the decision can’t be undone.

“The waiting is not because it’s a medical procedure; it’s a waiting period because it’s an irreversible, life-altering decision on the order of things like marriage, divorce, giving up your child for adoption,” said Denise Harle. “There is a societal interest in people entering into those decisions with due deliberation.”

Gov. Rick Scott signed the waiting period into law last year and it was quickly blocked by a lower court after the ACLU sued. But an appeals court lifted the injunction in February and the law was in effect until the Supreme Court temporarily blocked it two months later. The court is now deciding whether the injunction should stay in place while the lower court hears the initial lawsuit.

Justice Barbara Pariente pointed out that the state doesn’t require a waiting period for hysterectomies, vasectomies and other medical procedures.

“There’s not a waiting period after you decide that you’re going to lose your breast through a mastectomy – that you’ve got to wait another 24 hours before you go through that procedure, not that you haven’t thought about it up until that time,” said Pariente, who is a breast cancer survivor. “It’s not neutral and that’s my concern.”

After the hearing, Kaye said the law did create problems for women in the two months it was enacted.

“We got to see some examples of how harmful it is,” Kaye said. “Women suffered. Women missed work and wages they would not have otherwise had to lose, women experienced sickness that could have been avoided and women experienced and received a very clear message from the state: They are not capable decision makers.”

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Will Donald Trump bring Marco Rubio down in Florida?

There are two words that keep coming up in Florida’s U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Marco Rubio and Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick MurphyDonald Trump.

One of the strongest arguments Murphy is making in his underdog campaign to defeat Rubio is the failed presidential candidate’s support of the billionaire TV reality star. At rallies, in interviews and most notably during debates, Murphy has repeatedly made the Rubio-Trump connection.

“When Donald Trump goes low, Marco Rubio is right there with him,” Murphy said to cheers at a recent Hillary Clinton rally. “Marco Rubio claims he’s going to stand up to Donald Trump if he’s elected to president. Really? Really? How exactly is Marco Rubio going to do that if he can’t even stand up to him as a candidate? Donald Trump boasts about sexual assault, and Marco Rubio looks the other way.”

There are stark differences between the candidates on guns, health care, foreign policy, economic issues and abortion, and presidential politics injects another major issue into the Senate race, as each campaign hopes to use voter dissatisfaction with the top of the ticket to hurt the opposition.

“I’m totally unhappy with Marco Rubio,” said Judith Lyons, 68, a Democrat and retired massage therapist from Tallahassee. “All the nasty things throughout the whole (presidential) primary season between the two of them was just so horrible, and he’s still willing to vote for (Trump). It’s a political move for him.”

Rubio seems to be maintaining support from Republicans, even those who are abandoning Trump. Diana Font is a lifelong Republican who is going to vote for Clinton and also Rubio. She said he’s a “man of the people” who meets with constituents.

“I wanted him for president!” said Font, 57, who is the executive director of the local Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce. “I’m proud of him. I’m proud of what he’s done.”

Rubio, 45, instantly became the front runner in the race when he decided to seek a second term at the last minute after previously stating he wouldn’t. That made a more difficult path for Murphy, 33, who was still relatively unknown despite announcing his candidacy more than a year earlier. Rubio and outside groups that support him have far outspent Murphy and groups that support him.

Murphy, 33, even loaned his campaign $1 million late in the race for television ads, money that was needed after Washington groups pulled money it help Murphy, moves that upset Florida Democrats who saw Murphy closing the gap with Rubio. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pulled out of the race and the Senate Majority PAC also canceled its remaining $10 commitment to Murphy, but then last week transferred at least $1 million to Floridians for a Strong Middle Class, a super PAC backing Murphy.

Rubio and outside groups supporting him spent $18.8 million in television ads in October, compared to $8.7 million by Murphy and outside groups supporting him, according to Ashley Walker, who runs the Murphy super PAC. Rubio and his allies have $4.7 million in ads reserved for the final week of the race, compared to $3.3 million in ads reserved by Murphy and the PAC supporting him.

Murphy received a big boost from President Barack Obama, who has used Florida rallies to criticize Rubio, particularly for supporting Trump.

“Marco Rubio said this was a dangerous con artist who spent a lifetime – spent a career – sticking it to working people,” Obama said at an October rally in Miami. “Why does Marco Rubio still plan to vote for Donald Trump? Why is he supporting Donald Trump?”

Despite Rubio’s name recognition and money advantage, Murphy has remained close in recent polls, a sign that Rubio has lost his shine with Florida voters after the bitter presidential race and attacks that he ignored his job as senator to pursue higher ambitions.

Murphy is a two-term congressman who has been attacked for embellishing his resume. He has said his work as a certified public accountant and as a small business owner help him. But while he worked for an accounting firm in Florida, he wasn’t a licensed CPA in the state, and his environmental cleanup business was set up by his wealthy father.

Like Murphy, but to a lesser degree, Rubio has infused presidential politics into his campaign, pointing out that Murphy unequivocally supports Clinton.

“If Congressman Murphy is willing to trust Hillary Clinton 100 percent, he’s in rare company,” Rubio said during a debate. “The job of a U.S. senator is not to blindly trust a president because they happen to be from your own party.”

While Murphy is sharing stages with Clinton and Obama, Rubio is distancing himself for Trump, who often called Rubio “Little Marco” during the presidential campaign. Yes, he supports him, but he says he stands by statements he made during the presidential campaign. Rubio doesn’t campaign with Trump, continues to denounce his words and at an October state GOP dinner, he didn’t mention Trump once in a half-hour speech even though he spoke after Trump running mate Mike Pence.

Still, regardless of the issue, Murphy has repeatedly mentioned Trump when talking about Rubio. During the only two Senate debates, Murphy mentioned Trump by name 28 times, or roughly once for every two minutes of speaking time he had.

Asked about police relations with the black communities? Murphy mentioned Trump. Middle East policy? Trump. Women’s issues? Trump. Cuba? Trump.

“A noun, a verb and Donald Trump. That’s his answer to everything,” Rubio said.

Surrounded by alligators, Matthew cleanup goes on in Florida

Sure, lots of people in St. Augustine are picking up branches and leaves after Hurricane Matthew blew through town. But only a few are doing it surrounded by alligators.

That’s what Jim Darlington and Amie Mercado were doing on Sunday, raking up debris in an alligator pit with the enormous reptiles just a couple of feet away, including one who opened its mouth wide as Mercado approached. That was part of the unusual cleanup at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, where trees and limbs fell into alligator lagoons and crocodile pools, and enormous African storks were taken out of the bathrooms where they rode out the hurricane.

All in all, the zoo – one of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions and the only place in the world that displays every species of crocodilian – fared well during the storm. However, fears of what could have been were certainly on people’s minds.

“We were all hunkered down listening to the news, and of course everybody is on social media, and sure enough a rumor started that there are alligators out – hundreds of alligators were out,” Darlington said, who said the 123-year-old zoo was inspected by state wildlife officials immediately after the storm passed and before employees were allowed back in. “The walls were still standing. There weren’t alligators running around.”

To prepare for the storm, cobras and other venomous snakes put in drawstring bags, placed in secure containers and then those containers were placed in other containers. Storks were rounded up and placed in bathrooms. Parrots and other birds were caged and alligator hatchlings were crated and placed in a secure building.

“We had to get very creative with where we put animals to make sure they were in the best housing condition for 48 hours that we could possibly give them,” said Gen Anderson, the zoo’s bird and mammal curator.

Storks were put in the bathrooms, where sinks were left dripping.

“Each stork was in a separate bathroom, the floors are really easy to clean and they had a water source. They seemed comfortable,” Anderson said.

Crocodiles and alligators weren’t moved – but the water levels in lagoons and pools were lowered by half to make sure flooding didn’t get too high. Darlington said the surge ended up a bit higher than he expected, but no animals escaped.

“They just stay hunkered down,” Darlington said. “The animals just stay in the pools. In bad weather, they’re not out running around freaking out like a bunch of ostriches or something, they just want to stay in the water.”

The biggest hit to the zoo was its zip line, which visitors take to zoom over the alligators and crocodiles, dipping down to within about 30 feet of the creatures. Several limbs where the lines run came down. While the zoo hopes to open Tuesday, the zip line will take longer to repair.

Republish with permission of the Associated Press.

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