By George Bennett
Pledging that Florida will do "everything we can to help Puerto Rico," Gov. Rick Scott on Monday declared a state of emergency that he said will make it easier to accommodate an expected wave of people fleeing the island in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
As he kicked off an all-day Latin America Summit to promote business and human rights in the region, Scott also announced that Florida is opening relief centers for Puerto Ricans at Miami International Airport, PortMiami and Orlando International Airport.
"The goal is for Florida to be as helpful as we can," Scott told reporters at the Intercontinental Hotel.
Scott, a close political ally of President Donald Trump, declined to critique the federal government's response to the devastation in Puerto Rico. But U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who spoke at Monday's summit, told reporters the federal government had initially given a "conventional" response to Hurricane Maria that didn't account for the "severely diminished capacity" of Puerto Rico's government.
"We know people are going to come here. They have family here. They have friends here. They're comfortable coming to Florida. So they're going to come here. 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 friend? Is there a host family that can help them? Do their kids need to get into K-12 education?" Scott said.
The executive order, which applies to all the state's 67 counties, lays out numerous steps to help prepare for the expected influx of people, including allowing the suspension of state laws and rules that could be tied to the emergency and designating Wesley Maul, interim executive director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, as coordinator of the state's response to the crisis. It also allows "sufficient funds' be made available from the state, directs that public shelters be made available at the request of local emergency-management officials, allows pharmacists to dispense up to 30-day emergency supplies of prescriptions to evacuees, and bars businesses from selling or renting supplies "at an unconscionable price."
Scott said he has spoken to Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosello about helping supply 1,500 Spanish-speaking law enforcement officers for the island.
"I think we're going to see a lot of people come here. But my job is, whatever number of people come here, I'm going to do everything I can to help them. I know Gov. Rosello's goal is to rebuild Puerto Rico and I'm going to do everything I can to do that, whether it's helping him with our DOT or our K-12 education," Scott said.
Rubio said he had just learned Monday of Scott's emergency declaration and didn't immediately have an opinion on it.
"They're American citizens. They certainly have a right to come. Obviously our school systems will have to have the capacity to absorb more students and the like," Rubio told reporters.
"Puerto Ricans have every right to move to the mainland. They're U.S. citizens. They have the same right to come here as people living in Oklahoma do," Rubio said. "What I've always said is, if someone comes here from Puerto Rico, it should be because they want to come, not because they have to come because conditions are so bad."
Republicans Rubio and Scott both declined to discuss the political impact of a surge in Florida of Puerto Ricans, who tend to vote Democratic. Scott faces term limits as governor and is expected to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson next year.
"My approach is to reach out to people and talk to people and try to solve problems," Scott said. "The people that have come here from Puerto Rico, they are hard working. They have the same goals as we have. We all want to live the dream of this country. We want our kids to do well. We want our kids to have good education. We want a job."
Scott added: "I know the people that are going to come here from Puerto Rico are going to be hard working and they're going to be part of our society and my job as governor is to provide as many resources as I can to give them the same opportunity that every other Floridian has."
Scott declined to weigh in on criticisms of the federal response to the hurricane.
"I'm not here to assign blame," said Scott, who visited Puerto Rico last week. "My experience being over there is I saw people working their tail off."
Last week, Rubio visited Puerto Rico and, like Nelson, called for the military to take the lead in coordinating the hurricane response.
"Puerto Rico was handled in a very traditional and conventional way," Rubio said Monday of the initial federal response. "In essence, the island received the same assistance as a state would have received and the same process that would have been used to assist a state. The problem is that in the case of Puerto Rico it didn't work as well because the government of Puerto Rico itself was a victim of the storm."
The Puerto Rican government had "severely diminished capacity" from Hurricanes Irma and Maria as well as longstanding "economic challenges," said Rubio.
"I think it took a number of days for them (the federal government) to figure that out. And that's why I desperately wanted the Department of Defense to take over logistics....That traditional model of support that you would see in a mainland event was not working and I think in hindsight we all wish that we could get those three or four days back," Rubio said.
Things have improved with Army Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan on the scene, Rubio said.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that we're going to begin to see conditions improve. But I'm very worried, for example, about the hospital system, many of whom are operating on backup power and with intermittent blackouts that could potentially lead to a disaster," Rubio said.
(c)2017 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)