Florida will open three disaster aid centers for Puerto Rico's evacuees

First locations are at Orlando and Miami airport, Miami’s seaport<br>
Published Oct. 2, 2017|Updated Oct. 2, 2017

MIAMI -- Amid growing frustration over the pace of relief efforts, Florida will open three aid centers Tuesday to help Puerto Rican families suddenly displaced by Hurricane Maria.

Gov. Rick Scott said Monday that the centers, staffed by state employees, FEMA, the Red Cross and Catholic Charities, will be located in terminals at Orlando International Airport, Miami International Airport and Port Miami.

They will be open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week, at these locations:

* Miami International Airport, Concourse J, Level 4

* Port Miami, 1015 North America Way, terminal to be chosen pending ship arrivals

* Orlando International Airport, Terminal A, Level 1

“We know people will come here,” Scott said at the start of a one-day Latin American summit in Miami. “They have family here. They have friends here. They’re comfortable coming to Florida. And so we’re going to do whatever we can. Do they need a job? Do they need housing? Do they need to find a family and friend? Is there a host family that could help them?”

Scott said Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration asked Florida to lend 1,500 Spanish-speaking law-enforcement officers and “we’re doing that,” Scott said.

Scott announced the disaster relief centers three days after a group of Democratic state legislators called for them, and new criticism surfaced Monday about the response.

In five warehouses in Miami, thousands of emergency supplies from generators to medical equipment to food and water have been gathered by volunteers, wrapped in massive mounds of plastic wrap and ready to be shipped to Puerto Rico.

But Rep. Robert Asencio, D-Miami, who has helped to gather the supplies, said state officials won’t move them.

Asencio said he met with Scott and his staff Sunday and was told that the state does not have a place to store the supplies for staging and Florida must wait for Puerto Rico to request them under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, and it has not received such a request.

Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said Puerto Rico “has not completed the acceptance or request process for resources from the State of Florida.”

He said the state is working with emergency management officials in Puerto Rico “to respond to their active requests for resources and personnel” and will “continue to offer guidance and assistance throughout this process, so that these requests may be quickly fulfilled.”

Under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, Puerto Rico has to pay the up-front cost of assistance but resources aren’t shipped until it makes that commitment.

That’s not enough to satisfy Ascencio.

“What is the governor waiting for?” Asencio, a retired law enforcement officer, asked on Monday.

He said some warehouses and collection sites have been run in conjunction with the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce.

“Everything these people could want, we have on the ground. We’re going to be letting American citizens go without while we’re standing behind bureaucracy,” Asencio said.

Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner in Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón, said in an interview that aired Sunday on Miami’s Univision TV affiliate that up to 500,000 of the island’s 3.4 million people could leave after Maria.

Earlier Monday, Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami characterized it as “a terrible response to a horrible tragedy.”

“I’m not here to assign blame,” Scott said. “I know that we’ve worked hard to make sure we solve our problems in our state, and I know Gov. Rosselló is doing [the same] over there in Puerto Rico. My experience by being over there is, I saw people working their tail off.”

Scott declined to say whether Maria evacuees -- upset at President Donald Trump’s handling of the disaster response -- could turn into blue Florida voters casting ballots against the president and governor in future elections.

“I know that people are going to come here from Puerto Rico are going to be hardworking,” Scott said. “They’re going to be part of our society, and my job as governor is to provide as many resources as I can and give them the same opportunity that every other Floridian has.”

Orlando-area political leaders have said that as many as 100,000 people will relocate from Puerto Rico to Central Florida over the next couple of months.

Scott announced earlier that nearly 40 of Florida’s colleges and universities will waive out-of-state tuition and fees for students arriving from Puerto Rico.

The state Department of Education will be asked to waive class-size restrictions for school districts impacted by the evacuation, and Osceola County will ask the state to delay the annual student head count from October to January so ensure that the newly-arrived students will be included when state aid to school districts is distributed.

The influx of children from Puerto Rico will increase the need for bilingual teachers, and a Department of Education spokeswoman said that Florida and Puerto Rico already have a reciprocity agreement that will allow teachers in Puerto Rico to teach here.

Asencio and several other Democratic lawmakers have called for a special session of the Legislature, an idea House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, rejected.

“There appears to be, unfortunately, no end to political grandstanding,” Corcoran said.