ORLANDO -- Florida leaders need to step up immediately to prepare for perhaps hundreds of thousands of evacuees from Puerto Rico, Orlando area legislators and progressive activists declared Sunday at a news conference.
“We need to have a special session right now to deal with this crisis,” said Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith. “We need to have as a state all hands on deck to be able to deal with what is happening on the island of Puerto Rico. We cannot wait until Jan. 1.”
His colleague, Democratic state Rep. Amy Mercado, choked up as she noted that, like countless others in Florida, she family members on Puerto Rico unaccounted for 10 days after Hurricane Maria Struck, and millions of people on the island lack power and running water.
“To prepare for this influx of hundreds of thousands of Americans to Florida we believe it is vital that the state responds proactively to ease the impact on state and local governments and reduce the challenges that evacuees themselves will face,” said Mercadoo, who has urged the governor to establish relief centers to help evacuees from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Gov. Rick Scott has not responded to the request for a special session, but he reiterated Sunday that his administration is mobilizing resources to provide relief on the island and help evacuees coming to Florida.
“As Puerto Rico continues to respond to and recover from Hurricane Maria, Florida stands ready to deploy all available resources and personnel to our neighbors to help in these efforts,” he said in a statement.
“Last week, during my visit to Puerto Rico with Governor Ricardo Rosselló, I saw the complete and total devastation brought to Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria. The crisis in Puerto Rico is unlike anything we have seen before and Florida is going to do everything in our power to help everyone impacted by this storm get back on their feet. I will continue to make sure that our state leaders are in contact with officials in Puerto Rico. The State of Florida stands with Puerto Rico and will keep working to make sure they have everything they need.,” Scott said.
The governor said National Guard, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Division of Emergency Management, and other state agencies are working with federal and Puerto Rican officials. Many state colleges and universities, including University of Central Florida, University of Florida, and Florida State, are waiving out-of-state tuition fees for students displaced by Maria, and disaster relief centers in Florida are in the works.
Sunday’s news conference at Iglesia Episcopal Jesus de Nazaret church was organized by Vamos4PR, an offically non-partisan group funded by Democratic-leaning unions and other organizations.
“We’re coming here today to address a huminitarian crisis. This isn’t politics. This about human life. We’re here for people,” said Father Jose Rodriguez, the church rector who said he is a Republican.
But policy is politics, and many of the myriad policies advocated by speakers Sunday to help evacuees -- restoring affordable housing funding in the state budget, expanding Medicaid, aggressively responding to climate change, allowing Puerto Rico to write off $72 billion in public debt -- are largely priorities for Democrats, not Republicans.
“Puerto Rico’s economic refugees have already been paying dearly for housing, and as we continue to see the growing impacts of climate change, a new group of climate refugees are likely to come to the mainland with even fewer resources and will face an even more difficult time locating affordable housing,” said Yulissa Arce, regional director of Organize Florida, which advocates for low- and moderate-income Floridians.
The devastation caused by Maria could have significant political repercussions in Florida, where statewide elections tend to be neck and neck. Puerto Ricans are one of the fastest growing populations in Florida and tend to lean Democrat, though both parties are courting them. Perceptions about the state’s response to Maria could be a vote driver in competitive races in 2018, including Gov. Scott’s expected campaign for U.S. Senate.
No one singled Gov. Scott out for specific criticism Sunday, but several suggested the Republican agenda in Tallahassee on issues like affordable housing and access to health insurance will come under greater scrutiny as people in need stream into Florida from Puerto Rico.
State Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, said his constituents have been taken aback that President Trump attacked the Mayor of San Juan rather than simply promising her more help was on the way.
“It shows people the consequences of not voting. Elections have consequences,” he said of Trump. “And don’t forget, next year is an election for governor, senate, and other offices. People are watching and won’t forget. We won’t let them.”