KISSIMMEE -- In a warehouse packed with thousands of bottles of water encased in plastic, Gov. Rick Scott met Wednesday with Osceola County leaders who are mobilizing relief and planning for a potentially huge influx of Puerto Ricans fleeing the devastated island.
The suburbs around Disney World are home to the state’s largest Puerto Rican community, and many local residents have relatives and friends frantically trying to get out.
The backdrop for Scott’s visit -- bottled water as far as the eye could see -- underscored the need to get supplies to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico as quickly as possible.
Scott gave reassurances that Florida will do all it can to speed supplies to Puerto Rico. He said the state also is prepared to take a number of other steps, such as providing in-state tuition to arriving college students.
“We‘ve got to just keep being creative and thinking, O.K., so what are the needs?” Scott said. “One thing you find out by doing this, think of our state, we’ve had three hurricanes in 12 months ... Every time you say, what are the needs you can address?”
Local elected officials said the huge supply of water was collected in two days. There are media reports in Puerto Rico that as many as 100,000 people will eventually resettle in central Florida in the next few months, though most have no place to live and no jobs.
“People are going to come here because they‘ve lost everything,” said Osceola County Commissioner Fred Hawkins.
Describing the close-knit character of the local community, Osceola Sheriff Russell Gibson said: “When something happens there, it‘s like it happened here,” Gibson said.
State Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico and who has been active in organizing relief efforts, said seven people have asked to stay with him at his suburban Orlando home.
Local officials also say they expect to ask the state to waive class size restrictions as well as requirements that students have immunization records.
Catholic churches are an important focus of relief efforts. Area pastors urged Scott to lobby federal officials to lift restrictions on religious groups being able to help deliver urgently-needed relief supplies.