Florida Democrats return from aid trip to Puerto Rico ‘in tears’

State Sen. Victor Torres meets family in the devastated territory.
State Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, hugs his uncle in Ponce. (Courtesy of the Florida Democratic Party)
State Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, hugs his uncle in Ponce. (Courtesy of the Florida Democratic Party)
Published Oct. 3, 2017|Updated Oct. 3, 2017

Two charter planes flew eight Florida Democratic state lawmakers to Ponce, Puerto Rico, on Monday to deliver Hurricane Maria relief aid.

But for two of the legislators, the trip was more personal.

Sen. Victor Torres and his daughter, Rep. Amy Mercado, both of Orlando, had contacted Torres’ niece in New Jersey. Call your father in Puerto Rico on his land line, if it’s working, they’d said. Tell him to meet us at the Ponce airport.

He did.

And so, Torres and Mercado saw their family standing outside the airport fence and wept.

“He said to me, ‘Vitín, necesitamos agua,’” Torres said, reciting his childhood nickname. “We need water. We need food. We don’t have electricity.”

Mercado emptied her backpack, filled with personal supplies for the day, and gave them to her great-uncle.

“The reports that are coming out seem desperate, but what you see is even more desperate,” she said.

Torres and Mercado traveled as part of an 11-member delegation organized by Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel that included Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and Greenacres Mayor Joel Flores, who is of Puerto Rican descent and had collected the supplies — including power generators and chainsaws — in a post-storm donation drive.

The other legislators were newly elected Sen. Annette Taddeo of Miami, House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa, Rep. Kionne McGhee of Miami, Rep. John Cortes of Kissimmee, Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando and Rep. Daisy Baez of Coral Gables.

Five Puerto Ricans with health problems boarded the planes for the trip back, to get medical help in South Florida.

Bittel, who began organizing the trip Friday, said it was important for lawmakers to witness Maria’s wrath “so they could come back and be powerful advocates for aid on the ground.”

The group wanted to go somewhere other than the Puerto Rican capital, and through the Hispanic Federation’s charitable arm made contact with Ponce Mayor Mayita Meléndez.

“Everybody’s going to San Juan for a photo opportunity, or to show that they care, but southeast Puerto Rico is seeing no one,” Bittel said. “We believe those were the areas of greatest need.”

Perez, who has two Puerto Rican-born siblings and a niece who lives on the island and whom he saw Monday, praised Meléndez and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló for working with little to no sleep since the storm.

“I know the people who are there, in the front lines, are doing their best,” he said. But, Perez said he was most worried by seeing the lack of outside help in a city with a functioning airport and seaport: “I saw no evidence of FEMA.”

Perez and the Florida team were greeted by local aid workers and elected leaders — and coincided with Gov. Rosselló, who met up with them along a mountain road.

“We could see the inside of showers and restrooms — that was all that was left standing in these houses,” Smith said.

Smith said he stressed to Rosselló that Orlando’s Puerto Rican community, which last year grieved the deaths of their fellow boricuas in the Pulse nightclub shooting, had come together again to donate Maria supplies. Rosselló told Smith he’d seen photos of the Orlando United for Puerto Rico event online. The majority of Florida’s roughly 1 million Puerto Ricans live in Central Florida.

“He wanted me to pin the rainbow Pulse pin on this shirt, and I was able to do that,” Smith said. “That was a really powerful and emotional moment.”

Last week, Florida Democrats implored Republican Gov. Rick Scott to establish relief centers in five counties for Puerto Rican evacuees. On Monday, Scott announced that three centers will open Tuesday at the Miami and Orlando airports and PortMiami to assist Puerto Ricans stepping off planes and ships with information on housing, school enrollment and job placement. Some Democrats also want a special legislative session to deal with resettlement issues.

Nobody knows how many Puerto Ricans might leave the island in Maria’s wake, but Florida politicians say the state should prepare for an influx of thousands of new arrivals. On Monday, five Republican state representatives, including Bob Cortes of Altamonte Springs, whose daughter lives west of San Juan, asked Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart to give more money to public schools that take Puerto Rican students, and give them a break on class-size caps.

Florida politicians have been finding ways into Puerto Rico since Maria hit as a Category 4 beast on Sept. 20. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Scott visited last week. So did Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a Democrat who might run for governor next year; state Rep. Robert Asencio, D-Miami, and state Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando. U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat and the first Puerto Rican from Florida in Congress, also traveled to the island.

Asencio has warehouses “full of items to be donated,” Bittel said, echoing what the representative has told reporters. “We just need more transportation to get it down there.”

Nothing conveys Puerto Rico’s despair like setting foot in its hardest-stricken neighborhoods, said Perez, who said the “gripping” scenes gave him a renewed sense of urgency to help. Unsaid: Democrats could point to a slow response from the Republican Whhite House in future political campaigns.

“When I saw number of homes that were virtually destroyed, and then I see in the distance next to one of the homes, the American flag, it was a poignant reminder that Puerto Ricans are proud Americans, and they deserve fair treatment,” Perez said. “I have not seen evidence that they’ve gotten the same attention at this point.”

Cruz described giving away cash she had on her to a family that needed it to buy food.

“We saw houses that were blown to smithereens. We passed by countryside where trees had fallen and a mattress was embedded into power lines, dangling from the air,” she said. “We saw power lines foisted with two-by-fours by neighbors so that the road was passable. This is two weeks later!”

“I’m sitting here with these members, and they’re all in tears right now,” Cruz continued. “I didn’t have enough $20 bills. I didn’t have enough water. We didn’t have enough generators. We didn’t have enough chainsaws.

“I don’t know how we impress upon people with words how sad and sick the situation is.”