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Hurricane Irma price gouging complaints include $100 water delivery charge, soaring airfares

Florida’s attorney general slammed as “sickening” Wednesday evening more than 1,500 reported incidents of price gouging with Category 5 Hurricane Irma bearing down on the state, including delivery charges of $100 for a case of water.

“You’ve got vendors trying to trick people,” Pam Bondi said.”It’s sickening and disgusting, and we’re not going to have it.”

Retailer Amazon has suspended 12 third-party vendors associated with questionable fees, including a seemingly reasonably-priced case of water that came with a surprise delivery fee of $100, Bondi said.

>> Visit the Palm Beach Post's WeatherPlus blog for more Hurricane Irma coverage

“Come on,” Bondi said.

She said she has been in touch with Amazon among other firms and praised their cooperation in cracking down on abuses.

>> Hurricane Irma: Live updates

“It not just about money being taken from people, it’s about water and commodities our people need to survive,” Bondi said.

The majority of complaints are coming from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, she said. Many deal with food, water and ice prices, and others with gasoline.

>> Hurricane Irma: Millions fleeing storm could bring highways to halt

Florida Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said he urged federal authorities to help ensure gas is available for people trying to evacuate.

“As a growing number of Floridians are being ordered to evacuate, we need to ensure that these evacuees have access to the gasoline they need to escape this approaching storm,” Nelson wrote in a letter to Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long. “I strongly urge FEMA to use all available resources and authorities to assist those evacuating this potentially catastrophic storm, including pre-positioning fuel supplies near and along evacuation routes so those running low on fuel can obtain an emergency supply to get them out of harm’s way.”

>> Gas lines grow, pumps run dry: 8 tips to max out the fuel you have

Some complaints have addressed high airfares, Bondi said.

Delta said it will cap fares from Florida and other affected regions at $399 for direct nonstop flights, and American was also capping fares on flights from five South Florida airports and waiving pet fees, Bondi said.

>> PHOTOS: Hurricane Irma gets closer to U.S.

State law defines price gouging as a “gross disparity” between the current price and the average for the previous 30 days, but gives no strict statistical definition of how much is too much. Though there have been prosecuted cases or settlements after past storms, the broader effect frequently amounts to deterrence — making individual businesses think twice about jacking up prices.

More than 10,000 Floridians complained about price gouging after 2008’s Hurricane Ike, many about gas prices, but the approach of storms can shut down refineries or otherwise drive up fuel prices. In this case, Hurricane Harvey’s devastation of Texas had already affected supply and was sending prices up even before Irma entered the picture.

>> Read more trending news

What does Florida’s law cover? The price gouging statute mentions “essential commodities.” The Florida Attorney’s General’s Office says this includes food, water, ice, chemicals, petroleum products, and lumber to protect or fix properties. Not covered: Alcoholic drinks and cigarettes.

To report price gouging, call 1-866-9-NO-SCAM.

Hurricane Irma: Disabled, abandoned vehicles clogging Florida Turnpike will be towed, officials say

As drivers evacuate South Florida ahead of Hurricane Irma, many have had to abandon their vehicles on the Florida Turnpike when they became disabled or ran out of gas, the Florida Highway Patrol said Wednesday night. 

>> Visit WFTV.com for complete coverage of Hurricane Irma

"Unfortunately, the increased number of disabled and abandoned vehicles has created a problem for emergency workers utilizing the shoulders to reach crash victims and other roadway issues," FHP said in a statement. 

>> Hurricane Irma: Live updates

Starting at 6 a.m. Thursday, any vehicle left disabled or abandoned along the Florida Turnpike will be towed from the roadway, FHP said. 

>> Hurricane Irma: Millions fleeing storm could bring highways to halt

"We also want to remind drivers that all service plazas along the Turnpike are open and troopers are assisting the movement of drivers needing to refuel," the FHP statement said. "Only vehicles are allowed to fuel at this time. No one will be permitted to fill other containers, as the goal is to get drivers back on the road as soon as possible.

>> Read more trending news

"Stopping along the Turnpike, except in designated areas, is prohibited unless your vehicle becomes disabled or there is an emergency."

Hurricane Irma: Millions fleeing storm could bring highways to halt

In 2005millions of people were ordered to evacuate the Houston area as Hurricane Rita loomed in the Gulf of Mexico.

The results were traffic jams stretching hundreds of miles and the deaths of dozens of evacuees, either in crashes or from heat-related causes.

>> Visit the Palm Beach Post's WeatherPlus blog for complete Hurricane Irma coverage

Florida could be facing an even bigger disaster if large numbers of the state’s 7 million people who live south of Jupiter decide to flee Hurricane Irma in the coming days, according to Florida Atlantic University associate professor John Renne.

That bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic snarl that you encounter daily on Interstate 95? Envision that all the way to Jacksonville and beyond.

>> JetBlue offering $99 flights for people evacuating Hurricane Irma

“If everybody decided to evacuate, it would probably be worse than what happened in Houston, because we only have two major north-south highways,” said Renne, director of FAU’s Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions. “There’s no way everybody can evacuate.”

The good news is that unlike Houston, evacuations plans in South Florida don’t call for entire cities to clear out. Only those people in flood zones — 300,000 residents in Palm Beach County, according to officials — face mandatory evacuations. Counties also coordinate so that calls for evacuations are spaced out enough that mandatory evacuees aren’t running into other mandatory evacuees north of them.

>> Hurricane Irma: Live updates

But with a monster storm like Hurricane Irma certain to harm anything in its path, many South Floridians who do not live in evacuation zones have either left the area or are seriously thinking about it.

Bill Johnson, director of the Emergency Operations Center in Palm Beach County, said that’s not a great idea.

“Seven million people live south of Jupiter, and north of Jupiter the two major thoroughfares drop down to two lanes, so we cannot move all these people,” Johnson said, referring to I-95 and Florida’s Turnpike. “Evacuate in miles, not hundreds of miles. We are encouraging everyone to stay within the county.”

>> Hurricane Irma: How to prepare for the storm with your children

Even if all 300,000 Palm Beach County residents in evacuation zones chose to leave town, it might not make a noticeable difference on the roadways. Johnson points out the county handles twice that number of motorists twice a day during rush hour.

The bigger concern are the hundreds of thousands who voluntarily decide to leave, crowding highways being used by those forced to abandon their homes.

>> Hurricane Irma: 10 safest cities in Florida in a hurricane

“The thinking from people is that they can outrun a hurricane, and that’s the farthest thing from the truth,” Johnson said. “They’re just running from the wind. Wind is not the killer.”

Johnson points out the vast majority of those killed last month in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey died in flooding. If you don’t live in a flood-prone area, Johnson advises, it’s best to hunker down at home or go to a nearby shelter.

>> Why Hurricane Irma will not and cannot be a Category 6

And as Hurricane Irma creeps closer to Florida, it may already be getting a little late to leave, especially for those who have no specific destination to wait out Irma.

“When a major storm is bearing down on you, people will definitely panic,” Renne said. “But it’s better to panic early than panic late.”

Visitors to the Florida Keys were told to leave Wednesday morning and its 70,000 residents must go Wednesday night, Gov. Rick Scott said.

>> Hurricane Irma: How do you stay safe in the storm?

Evacuation orders could be issued Thursday in coastal Miami-Dade County, and parts of Broward County have already begun evacuations.

A new evacuation plan rolled out this year by the Florida Department of Transportation can permit motorists to drive on the shoulders of highways with two lanes in each direction, including Interstate 75 along Alligator Alley. The turnpike can be turned into a one-way roadway beginning just north of the Boynton Beach interchange and ending in Orlando in the event of a Category 3 hurricane (111 mph) or stronger, officials said.

>> Read more trending news

“One of the things about evacuations that’s important for people to understand is that they’re not made to be a convenience, but to save lives,” said Brian Woshon, a professor of civil engineering at LSU who studies evacuations. “It’s not going to be comfortable and not everybody is going to be happy when you’re trying to move hundreds of thousands, if not, millions of people.”

– Palm Beach Post staff writer Joe Capozzi contributed to this story.

J.J. Watt’s Harvey fundraising pushes past $20 million

J.J. Watt’s rush to continue raising money for the victims of Hurricane Harvey and the historic flooding in and around Houston that followed the Aug. 25-30 storm broke the $20 million mark, as his online crowdfunding site pushed past that threshold about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, according to USA Today.

>> George Strait, Beyonce, others to hold Hurricane Harvey relief concert

Watt pledged $100,000 to the Red Cross fund when he started it with the goal of raising $200,000.

>> Read more trending news

“It’s such a testament to the people out there," Watt said Sunday after donations of $1 million from Tennessee Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk, $1 million from Walmart, $200,000 from hip-hop artist Drake and $50,000 from NBA star Chris Paul.

Watt, an all-pro defensive end for the Houston Texans, said Sunday when the total raised was at $17 million. “It’s such a testament to how much good there is in the world.’’

>> Complete Harvey coverage from the Austin American-Statesman

Many NFL owners and players have pledged money to Harvey victims, including Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who has committed $1 million.

Doctor, midwife brave Hurricane Harvey floodwaters to help their patients

A surgeon from Dickinson, Texas, left his flooded-out home Saturday and made the unlikeliest commute.

>> Hurricane Harvey: How you can help

According to KABC, Dr. Stephen Kimmel guided his canoe through waist-high water for at least a mile to get to a Clear Lake-area hospital to perform surgery on a 16-year-old with a life-threatening condition.

“Sometimes you have to do whatever it takes,” Kimmel provided in a press release. “This young man’s life would have been changed for the worse forever if we hadn’t been able to perform surgery when we did. In the end, it all turned out very well.”

>> On Rare.us: United Airlines provides relief to hurricane victims

The teen, who was suffering from a testicular torsion, will make a full recovery.

>> Watch an interview here

But Kimmel wasn’t the only hero braving the water for patients during Harvey.

According to the "Today" show, Cathy Rude, a midwife of 25 years, made a harrowing journey of her own to get to a patient experiencing labor pains leading up to the brunt of the storm.

>> 8 tips when donating to Hurricane Harvey recovery and relief efforts

“I was concerned, as she was, that if her water were to break, things would happen very quickly,” Rude said in an interview. “So we started asking how I was going to get out of the house if that happened.”

>> Harvey's aftermath: Houston perseveres through immense loss (live updates)

Rude was almost forced to give up after her truck could not make it through the flooded streets, but when her mother-to-be Andrea Haley saw a neighbor with an inflatable swan down her street, she asked the “white horse” if they would be willing to pick her up:

>> Need something to lift your spirits? Read more uplifting news

“Andrea called me and said, ‘A swan is coming to pick you up.’ I laughed and gathered all my stuff and opened the front door and sure enough there was an inflatable swan with my neighbor behind it,” Rude said. “So I climbed on and she pushed me down the street to the end of the street and I was able to climb off the swan and into the pick-up truck and off we went to the birth center. She had the baby later that evening.”

>> Read more trending news

Rude was anything but after her safe delivery.

“A midwife is not just a care provider, she’s your friend," Rude said. "So of course, she wanted me to be there. I think she was appreciative, but I don’t think she was very surprised, because as midwives, that’s just what we do.”

If you need or would like to help in Houston, read more here.

Virgin Mary statue survives fire that destroyed home during Hurricane Harvey

A family says a statue of the Virgin Mary is all that remained after a fire destroyed their home during Hurricane Harvey, and that symbol is giving them hope.

>> Watch the news report here

>> Hurricane Harvey: How you can help

The Rojas family of Robstown, Texas, evacuated their homes on their family property before the Category 4 hurricane made landfall, and after seeing what happened to three of the family’s houses, they say they’re glad they left. They returned to charred remains where the houses once stood.

>> Need something to lift your spirits? Read more uplifting news

>> On HotTopics.TV: Your heart will melt when you see what this little boy did for a baby Jesus statue out in the cold 

“The first thing I thought is we would have died in here if we would have stayed. We left, so we’re alive and I just wish this wouldn’t have happened,” homeowner Natali Rojas told KRIS.

>> 8 tips when donating to Hurricane Harvey recovery and relief efforts

Rojas said one of the only items that remained after the fires was a statue of the Virgin Mary. She said it’s a reminder to stay strong.

>> Harvey's aftermath: Houston perseveres through immense loss (live updates)

“Appreciate what you have, listen to the warnings, hug your children and thank God for today and yesterday, and pray for a better tomorrow,” Rojas said.

>> Read more trending news

The Rojas family set up a GoFundMe account to raise money to rebuild. If you would like to donate, click here.

Lost dog jumps into stranger's car during Hurricane Harvey, reunites with family

A dog is back with his family thanks to a storm chaser who found more than just a hurricane this weekend.

>> Hurricane Harvey evacuees haven't forgotten about their pets

According to HotTopics.TV, Aaron Jayjack describes himself as a storm chaser and outdoorsman in his Twitter bio. According to a video posted over the weekend, he was in Runge, Texas, chasing Hurricane Harvey when a dog jumped into his car.

>> Watch the video here

“I stopped for gas and this guy was following me down the road and when I stopped he jumped into the Jeep,” Jayjack said in a video posted to Twitter.

>> Need something to lift your spirits? Read more uplifting news

He asked his followers to share the video in hopes of finding the dog’s owner. He nicknamed the lost pup “Harvey.”

>> Sandra Bullock donates $1M to American Red Cross for Harvey relief

His tweet went viral, and the dog’s owner soon came forward. The dog, whose real name is Cash, is now back with his family, according to a Twitter update by Jayjack.

>> Read more trending news

Cash was clearly happy to see his family again.

“Cash was trying to climb out [the] window to [his] owner,” Jayjack wrote.

>> See the post here

>> See the reunion here

Sandra Bullock donates $1M to American Red Cross for Harvey relief

Actress Sandra Bullock has given $1 million to the American Red Cross’s Harvey Relief Fund, People magazine reports

>> Complete Harvey coverage on Statesman.com

The “The Proposal” and “Minions” star, who owns a home in Austin, Texas, told the magazine that her decision was made in an attempt to bring people together. 

>> Hurricane Harvey: Celebs pledge help to those affected by storms

“I’m just grateful I can do it,” she told People. “We all have to do our part...There are no politics in eight feet of water. There are human beings in eight feet of water.”

>> Harvey makes second landfall in Louisiana (live updates)

Bullock is just one of many celebrities who have donated their time or money for Tropical Storm Harvey relief. Among others, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt has started a fundraiser that has raised more than $5 million since Sunday, and comedian Kevin Hart said he will donate $25,000 to the American Red Cross, and urged his celebrity friends to do the same. 

>> Read more trending news

Tropical Storm Harvey has dumped more than 50 inches of rain over Houston and its surrounding areas, the greatest amount of rainfall ever recorded in the 48 contiguous states from one storm. As of early Wednesday morning, 19 people were confirmed dead as a result of the storm. 

Best Buy apologizes after photo of $43 water cases during Hurricane Harvey goes viral

Best Buy has apologized after a viral photo appeared to show a Houston-area store selling cases of bottled water for as much as $43 during Hurricane Harvey.

>> Houston flooding: Texas records most rainfall ever in continental US (live updates)

A photo submitted to GritPost appeared to show a Best Buy offering $29.98 and $42.96 cases of water, prompting outrage and allegations of price gouging on social media.

>> See the post here

A Best Buy spokesman issued the following statement about the photo to CNBC on Tuesday:

>> Hurricane Harvey evacuees haven't forgotten about their pets

"This was a big mistake on the part of a few employees at one store on Friday. As a company, we are focused on helping, not hurting affected people. We're sorry and it won't happen again. Not as an excuse but as an explanation, we don't typically sell cases of water. The mistake was made when employees priced a case of water using the single-bottle price for each bottle in the case."

>> Hurricane Harvey: How you can help

The Texas Attorney General’s Office confirmed to GritPost that reports of price gouging have been flowing in, including more than 550 complaints and 225 emails. And officials expect even more once the waters go down.

>> 8 tips when donating to Hurricane Harvey

“We expect more complaints in the wake of the storm regarding home repair and construction fraud/price gouging,” said Kayleigh Lovvorn, who works in media relations in the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

>> Bass Pro Shops donating dozens of boats to aid Harvey rescue efforts

“Unfortunately, price gouging like this can be common following natural disasters,” she continued. Lovvorn added that they office has seen complaints from “hotels, grocers, fuel providers and (most frequently) fresh water.”

>> Read more trending news

Businesses found guilty of price gouging can face fines of $20,000, according to GritPost. The site also noted that “anyone who overcharges a senior citizen on necessary goods will be fined $250,000.”

Hurricane Harvey evacuees haven't forgotten about their pets

As thousands of people are displaced by rising waters in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, they are bringing small amounts of personal belongings to area shelters. But evacuees are not leaving their furry friends behind.

>> Good boy: Dog carrying bag of food through Hurricane Harvey goes viral

“It seems like everyone coming off a boat is carrying a dog or cat,” said Monica Schmidt, a manager for the Houston Humane Society, according to Reuters.

>> Houston flooding: Texas records most rainfall ever in continental US (live updates)

Because many people stayed behind – and died – during Hurricane Katrina because they were fearful that they wouldn’t be able to bring their animals to shelters, this time around, authorities are welcoming the pets with open arms.

>> Hurricane Harvey: How you can help

At the George R. Brown Convention Center, where some 9,000 evacuees are currently housed, there is a separate area for people and their pets.

>> 8 tips when donating to Hurricane Harvey relief efforts

Not everyone has heeded the call to save pets. A woman claimed on Twitter that her neighbor in Corpus Christi left behind a dog.

And a shelter in San Antonio has taken in around 200 displaced animals, the New York Times reported.

>> Read more trending news

“Our commitment is for as long as it takes and as long as the nation needs our help,” Heber Lefgren, the department’s director, said in an interview.

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