- George Bennett Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson issued separate calls Thursday for President Donald Trump to heighten the U.S. military role in delivering Hurricane Maria relief to Puerto Rico as Florida Gov. Rick Scott visited the island and pledged state help.
The attention from Florida’s top political figures highlighted humanitarian concerns about the U.S. territory and served as a reminder of the island’s growing significance in the Sunshine State. Florida’s Puerto Rican population has more than doubled since 2000 and now tops 1 million.
“I’ve had so many people in Florida that want to help Puerto Rico. We have a big Puerto Rican population here, plus we’re a giving state,” Scott said after returning from Puerto Rico on Thursday night in Sanford, according to video from Orlando station WKMG News 6.
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a potential Democratic candidate for governor, delivered supplies to Puerto Rico on Wednesday and used military imagery to criticize the federal government Thursday for not “declaring war on the devastation of Hurricane Maria and showing what America can really do when we come together.”
Rubio, who visited Puerto Rico on Monday and warned the island is “on the verge of a serious and growing humanitarian crisis,” sent a letter Thursday to Trump urging him to make the Department of Defense, rather than FEMA, the lead agency in coordinating recovery efforts.
“There is no clear command, control, and communication between local officials on the ground and federal agencies, and many roads and bridges remained unpassable, making it even more difficult for repair crews to restore power and communications to areas of the island outside of San Juan,” Rubio’s letter says.
“This unique situation requires a well-coordinated response led by the Department of Defense (DOD), which is the only entity capable of executing a recovery effort of this scale and complexity,” Rubio said.
Nelson also called for a greater military role in a brief statement he released Thursday.
“There is a crisis in Puerto Rico where food, water, fuel and medicine is sitting at the docks and not getting out to the remote parts. The situation calls for an immediate response by the U.S. military to provide distribution and security to these remote areas. As was said after Hurricane Andrew: Where is the cavalry?” Nelson said.
White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert, who saw Rubio briefly during his Monday visit, was asked about Rubio’s concerns during a White House press briefing on Thursday.
“We’ve addressed those challenges in communicating between local and state authorities by augmenting them with federal staff. That’s something that wasn’t necessarily apparent to the senator as he got there. He identified a problem but it was a problem already being fixed,” Bossert said.
Bossert said the Army Corps of Engineers has been given a mission to restore electrical power on the island.
“To your question about whether the military’s in charge, it depends on the mission and function,” Bossert said. “They’re in charge of a lot but not everything. The people of Puerto Rico are strong, competent and where they’re not diminished in capacity they’re in charge and that’s the best way to handle things. But where they’re not able and where they have diminished capacity we’re taking extreme steps.”
The number of Floridians who identify as Puerto Rican Hispanics in the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey is estimated at more than 1 million in 2016 — up from 482,027 in the 2000 census. About 30 percent of Florida’s Puerto Ricans live around Orlando in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties.
The growth in Florida’s Puerto Rican population — which could accelerate after Hurricane Maria’s devastation — carries political implications in the perennial swing state. Puerto Ricans, who tend to lean Democratic, are poised to outnumber historically Republican-leaning Cuban-Americans in Florida by 2020, according to a study last year for the nonprofit Hispanic Federation.
“We don’t know how many people are going to come here,” Scott said Thursday night.
“We have so many people that want to help and financially our state is in a good financial position. We’ll be able to figure this out. Florida’s a welcoming state, we’re a tourism state. We love people coming here,” Scott said. “But I know talking to the governor (Ricardo Rosello) their goal long-term is they want to build their island. They don’t want everybody to come here and stay here. … They want people to come back.”
Staff writer Mahima Singh contributed to this story.