Florida algae crisis: Mayors ask to expand Scott's state of emergency; Rooney calls for federal action

Sarah Jarvis
The News-Press
Florida Gulf Coast University graduate Christian Rehm took this photo Monday morning while walking on Sanibel Island.

Florida politicians are calling for action in hopes of opening up additional aid to offset the damage caused by the toxic algae blooms and red tide that persists in the region.

Six Lee County mayors are asking the county to expand the state of emergency Gov. Rick Scott declared last month, to include more money for cleanup and businesses and individuals affected by the algae, as well as a public relations campaign. Meanwhile, U.S Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Naples, has called on the White House to issue a state of emergency to "make a host of funding and resources available that would otherwise not be possible."

Rooney's request would have to be approved by President Donald Trump and would allow for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies to send financial assistance to Florida.

Gov. Scott's July declaration includes seven counties: Lee, Hendry, Glades, Martin, Okeechobee, St. Lucie and Palm Beach. The $700,000 designated for Lee County from the state environmental agency so far came as a result of Scott's declaration. The grant program includes a total of $3 million to help combat algal blooms caused by Lake Okeechobee water discharges. 

More:Gov. Rick Scott issues state of emergency for Lee, Martin counties following tour of algae blooms

More:Fort Myers, Cape Coral at center of two water quality tragedies – red tide and blue-green algal bloom

The mayors of Sanibel, Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Bonita Springs, Fort Myers Beach and Estero met Wednesday. They instructed Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane to communicate with Gov. Scott directly about the expansion, according to the request.

Scott directed Wes Maul, director of emergency management services, to discuss the expansion with Ruane. Ruane said Lee County Emergency Management Director Lee Mayfield would work with the state, after approval from the county commissioners.

He said he needs to articulate at Tuesday's county commissioners meeting the unique impact Lee County is facing, adding that hotel occupancies on Sanibel have dropped by 70 percent for August. He said the chambers of commerce in the six municipalities that signed on have been working together to quantify the economic impact of the algae crisis.

More:Gov. Rick Scott issues state of emergency for Lee, Martin counties following tour of algae blooms

More:Some tourists avoid dining waterfront, 'blindsided' by environmental devastation

Cape Coral Mayor Joe Coviello said the request includes five goals: to hold more water north of Lake Okeechobee, to expand the money allotted for cleanup, to provide compensation to affected businesses and individuals, and to provide a public relations campaign "to promote tourism, once we get this all cleaned up." Ruane said the public relations campaign would be important to make sure the area doesn't have a "social media hangover."

"I believe that the governor will be receptive to our request," Coviello said.

More:Florida algae crisis: What's the difference between red tide and blue-green algae?

More:As red tide, algae blooms drag on, health agencies stay mum on what constitutes a crisis

Untold numbers of dead fish have washed up in the past two months, and more than 400 sea turtles have been recovered from local waters and beaches since Nov. 1. The red tide has lingered here since October, and the blue-green algal bloom started in June.

The National Weather Service had a beach hazard advisory in place through Thursday, and the Department of Health in Lee sent out a public advisory Friday afternoon. 

The request for the state of emergency expansion also includes requests for financial assistance for algae and dead fish cleanup and financial assistance for businesses that can demonstrate loss of income and workers who are impacted by the algae.

This is what the algae bloom looks like at Prosperity Pointe Marina Bait Shop in North Fort Myers. People who live on the water, in boats at local marinas, say they have had no warning about what the green algae can do to them health wise. Nor have they been asked to leave the area. Many who live at the Rosen Park Marina in Cape Coral, FL, are concerned about the algae bloom and are coming down with breathing and skin issues.

Congressman Francis Rooney's request to President Trump, sent Monday, expanded on the urgency of the matter. He implored the president that "we need to take action now."

“The devastation we are experiencing in Southwest Florida is severely impacting our health, economy and ecology,” he said in a press release. “Dead sea life, toxic algae, and red tide are crippling our area and although we are finally, thanks to our combined efforts, seeing progress on funding projects that will permanently fix our water quality, these projects will take years to complete."

He compared the situation in Florida to the wildfires ranging out West and flooding in the Midwest.

“Our current conditions are every bit as disastrous to us as the recent wildfires are to California and flooding has been to Michigan,” Rooney continued.

Reporter Chad Gillis contributed to this story. Connect with Sarah Jarvis @SarahJarvisNP on Twitter and Facebook or at sjarvis@news-press.com.