@ByKristenMClark and @stevebousquet
Photo credit: Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times
@ByKristenMClark and @stevebousquet
Photo credit: Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times
KISSIMMEE -- In a warehouse packed with thousands of bottles of water encased in plastic, Gov. Rick Scott met Wednesday with Osceola County leaders who are mobilizing relief and planning for a potentially huge influx of Puerto Ricans fleeing the devastated island.
The suburbs around Disney World are home to the state’s largest Puerto Rican community, and many local residents have relatives and friends frantically trying to get out.
The backdrop for Scott’s visit -- bottled water as far as the eye could see -- underscored the need to get supplies to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico as quickly as possible.
Scott gave reassurances that Florida will do all it can to speed supplies to Puerto Rico. He said the state also is prepared to take a number of other steps, such as providing in-state tuition to arriving college students.
“We‘ve got to just keep being creative and thinking, O.K., so what are the needs?” Scott said. “One thing you find out by doing this, think of our state, we’ve had three hurricanes in 12 months ... Every time you say, what are the needs you can address?”
Local elected officials said the huge supply of water was collected in two days. There are media reports in Puerto Rico that as many as 100,000 people will eventually resettle in central Florida in the next few months, though most have no place to live and no jobs.
“People are going to come here because they‘ve lost everything,” said Osceola County Commissioner Fred Hawkins.
Describing the close-knit character of the local community, Osceola Sheriff Russell Gibson said: “When something happens there, it‘s like it happened here,” Gibson said.
State Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico and who has been active in organizing relief efforts, said seven people have asked to stay with him at his suburban Orlando home.
Local officials also say they expect to ask the state to waive class size restrictions as well as requirements that students have immunization records.
Catholic churches are an important focus of relief efforts. Area pastors urged Scott to lobby federal officials to lift restrictions on religious groups being able to help deliver urgently-needed relief supplies.
Photo credit: Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday viewed a Kissimmee warehouse filled with bottled water and other goods awaiting shipment to Puerto Rico. [Steve Bousquet / Herald/Times]
Republicans and Democrats have a clear message for President Donald Trump: Puerto Rico is now a humanitarian crisis.
Large portions of the U.S. territory are without power and basic services one week after Hurricane Maria swept over the island as a Category Four hurricane. Politicians who have spent time on the ground in Puerto Rico since the storm, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New York Rep. Nydia Velázquez, are urging the Trump administration to take every action available to help more than 3 million U.S. citizens.
“Our conventional method to respond to a storm requires the federal government to kind of plug in with the existing emergency response... and work through them to distribute aid,” Rubio said. “That model probably won’t work as well, in fact I don’t think it will work on the situation in Puerto Rico.”
Rubio said it takes five days for supplies to reach Puerto Rico by barge from Miami and seven days from Jacksonville, making it tough to get much-needed medical supplies and aid there quickly. Puerto Rico is 1,000 miles from Miami, while countries like the Dominican Republic and Jamaica are closer.
But the Trump administration has not waived a U.S. law that would allow foreign vessels to assist in Puerto Rico’s relief effort. The Jones Act, a law that requires the delivery of goods between U.S. ports to done by U.S. owned and operated ships, was waved in Texas after Hurricane Harvey and in Florida after Hurricane Irma to allow for more efficient fuel delivery.
“That is critical, particularly for fuel,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said to CNN, adding that he expects the Trump administration to eventually waive the law. “One of the considerations right now is the priority of getting fuel, diesel, gasoline, all across the island. Right now we have enough fuel. We’re limited by the transportation logistics, but at some point, of course, getting fuel into the island is going to be critical so that we can have the major functions of telecoms, hospitals, water, to be running appropriately.”
Trump said he’s thinking about rescinding the Jones Act in Puerto Rico, but he will take into consideration the interests of the U.S. shipping industry.
“We're thinking about that, but we have a lot of shippers and a lot of people who work in the shipping industry who don't want the Jones Act lifted,” Trump said. “And we have a lot of ships out there right now.”
The Department of Homeland Security, under pressure from lawmakers like Velázquez and Arizona Sen. John McCain to waive the act, said they are not “legally allowed to waive the Jones Act to make goods cheaper.”
DHS officials, who declined to speak on the record, said that the Jones Act is waived “in the interest of national defense” and that the Department of Defense usually makes the recommendation based on requests from U.S. shipping interests.
Velázquez, along with three other Puerto Rican members of Congress, submitted a request to waive the act on Monday. DHS officials said the request from Congress was “not normal” but that it was being evaluated. The officials declined to say when they would make a decision on the request, but said it is “unlikely” a decision would come on Wednesday.
Read more here.
A New Jersey Democrat is not happy that the Trump administration is reportedly barring lawmaker travel to Puerto Rico as the island recovers from Hurricane Maria.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that at least 10 lawmakers were hoping to go to Puerto Rico aboard military aircraft over the weekend on a trip organized by Sen. Bob Menendez, but they were stopped by the White House and Pentagon. The administration officials said lawmaker travel at this time would impede relief efforts, according to the Post.
After the Post piece was published, Menendez said on Twitter that he was planning to travel with Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, one of only a handful of lawmakers who have visited Puerto Rico since the storm hit.
"Over a dozen members of Congress say they’d join Marco Rubio & I to head to Puerto Rico to assess disaster response," Menendez tweeted. "Restricting us doesn’t serve millions in NJ & across U.S. waiting to get a hold of their families. These are Americans who need our help. We will not back down!"
Over a dozen members of Congress say they’d join @MarcoRubio & I to head to Puerto Rico to assess disaster response. Restricting us doesn’t serve millions in NJ & across U.S. waiting to get a hold of their families. These are Americans who need our help. We will not back down! https://t.co/FXLFq3zDex— Senator Bob Menendez (@SenatorMenendez) September 27, 2017
After visiting Puerto Rico and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló on Monday, Rubio met with Vice President Mike Pence and other top FEMA officials on Tuesday to relay his concerns about the humanitarian situation throughout the territory.
“I'm concerned about human suffering and potential loss of life if aid doesn't reach the places it needs to reach quickly enough,” Rubio said. “I hope that we don't see Katrina-like images.”
President Donald Trump announced plans to visit Puerto Rico next Tuesday, and he said that was the earliest possible day he could visit without hampering relief efforts. The Post reported that lawmakers have been barred from traveling on military planes to Puerto Rico since Monday evening.
Menendez's office confirmed that the New Jersey senator was working with Republicans to organize a trip.
"I can confirm that Senator Menendez is the lead member organizing a bipartisan CODEL to Puerto Rico with several members," Menendez spokesman Juan Pachon said in an email. "Our office is now trying to figure out alternatives to make this happen as the situation on the island is extremely dire."
Rubio acknowledged the logistical constraints of travel to the island in a Facebook video on Wednesday.
“I tried to get there Friday last week and it wasn’t possible for a lot of reasons," Rubio said. "I want people to understand, when you think about some of these trips, you have an airport, and the airport can only take X number of flights a day, and so if I get on an airplane and fly in there, that’s one less flight that can land with food or medicine or personnel, and so we didn’t want to be in the way.”
Planes can only land once every 15 minutes in San Juan according to Rubio, and the lack of flights is an obstacle for getting aid into the territory. Rubio's office sent four staffers to the island on Wednesday to assist with recovery efforts.
Menendez and Rubio are the leading members of the Senate subcommittee that oversees Western Hemisphere affairs. Menendez is currently on trial for corruption in New Jersey.
One lawmaker, Illinois Democratic Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, plans to travel to Puerto Rico this weekend. But he is traveling on a commercial flight and not a military plane, according to the Post.
"I hope to return to Puerto Rico here in the next couple days if possible with some of my colleagues to begin what we can do to kind of break down barriers and help deliver aid,” Rubio said.
A statewide gun control advocacy group is criticizing a decision by two judges to buy tickets to a fundraiser for a group affiliated with the National Rifle Association.
The Times/Herald reported that judges Clay Roberts and Kemmerly Thomas of the First District Court of Appeal confirmed they bought tables at the Sept. 15 event, a dinner and auction organized by “Friends of the NRA” that benefited the NRA Foundation, a public charity.
In a news release, the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence said Wednesday that it “questions the ability of these judges to remain impartial on any future gun-related case brought before them based on their involvement in this fundraiser.”
“This event was not related to court or legal matters. It was a fundraiser for a special interest group. It is of the utmost importance that members of the bench show no sign as to what could be taken as a lack of neutrality,” said Patti Brigham, co-chair of the coalition.
The coalition includes about 100 groups across the state, including theLeague of Women Voters, Florida PTA, Florida Immigrant Coalition,churches and local health organizations.
The two judges were listed as “supporters and sponsors” in the event program. They said they did not authorize organizers to list them by their title of “Judge” in the program and that they had no role in helping the foundation raise money.
NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer said the program content was her decision and that it was a gesture of respect to the two judges.
Any legal challenge to state gun laws filed in Tallahassee’s Second Judicial Circuit would be heard on appeal by the First District Court of Appeal, also based in Tallahassee.
A nonprofit linked to a sea-rise advocacy group out of New York is planning a six-figure marketing effort behind Mayor Tomás Regalado’s Miami Forever general obligation bond.
With the city prohibited from funding its own political campaign, a 501(c)4 called the Seawall Coalition is planning to step into Miami and drop $200,000 between now and Nov. 7, when voters will decide whether to pay for $400 million in public works projects. Nearly half the money would pay for sweeping storm drain improvements, pumps and other efforts to brace the city against flooding and climate change, with the remainder going toward affordable housing, parks and public safety.
Matthew Eby, the group’s chairman and executive director of the First Street Foundation, said the decision to campaign for the bond came this summer as the foundation was pursuing its SeaLevelRise.org initiative to raise climate change awareness in Florida and Virginia. At one point, they met with Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, who mentioned the need for a bond campaign.
“We started the 501(c)4 as an advocacy group around sea-level rise solutions and within that we were looking around for what we should be getting involved in and heard about the bond,” said Eby. “We spoke with elected officials and that’s when we found out there weren’t any marketing dollars allocated to helping get the bond passed. That’s when we agreed to put $200,000 toward marketing.”
Florida’s Democratic Party picked up a crucial seat in the Florida Senate Tuesday in a special election triggered months ago by a Miami Republican’s alcohol-fueled tirade at a bar near the state Capitol.
Riding an election-day and early-voting surge, Annette Taddeo topped State Rep. Jose Felix Diaz in the race to claim Senate District 40, a southwest Dade seat resigned in the spring by former Sen. Frank Artiles. The victory gives Democrats 16 seats in the chamber and hands Taddeo her first campaign win in a political career filled with second-place finishes.
“The voters wanted a champion in Tallahassee who will fight for higher paying jobs, affordable healthcare and fully funded public schools and I am honored and humbled that they have placed their faith and trust in me,” Taddeo, who previously lost races for U.S. Congress and as Charlie Christ’s running mate in the 2014 governor’s election, said in a statement. “I pledge to work every day for the families of my community and not the special interests.”
To read the rest, click here.
Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday announced the abrupt departure of the head of the state Department of Emergency Management, Bryan Koon, and replaced him with Scott’s former campaign aide and Republican Party of Florida operative, Wes Maul, who has just over a year of emergency operations experience.
Koon, 45, the former director of emergency management at Walmart stores who helped shepherd the agency through the most ferocious storm to hit Florida in a decade, came to work for the state in 2011. He told the governor on Sept. 1 he would resign before the end of the hurricane season "to pursue an opportunity in the private sector,'' said McKinley Lewis, Scott spokesman.
The governor asked Koon to stay until Oct. 1 and he agreed, Lewis said. Maul, 29, will be promoted from chief of staff to interim director.
Unlike previous governors, Scott did not allow his emergency management director to address the media at briefings or answer questions, preferring instead that he be the lone voice warning Floridians to be prepared. At one point, when a reporter asked Koon to respond to questions at the state’s emergency operations center, he said he might have to “get the PIO [public information officer] to tell me if I can answer them or not.”
Maul, who graduated from the University of Florida School of Law in 2013, worked as a travel aide in the governor’s 2014 reelection campaign, and the state Division of Elections shows he was paid more than $84,000 by the party and the governor’s campaign. According to Maul’s application for work in the governor’s office, he then came to work performing similar duties with the title “special assistant to the governor.”
This is the second time in two years Scott has elevated Maul. In May 2016, Scott named Maul chief of staff reporting to Koon. Details here.
Photo: Wes Maul, courtesy of LinkedIn
Saying that a police investigation into a Tuesday morning shooting in southwest Miami-Dade blocked voters from casting ballots in a special Florida Senate election, the Florida Democratic Party asked Gov. Rick Scott Tuesday to extend hours for three polling precincts.
Scott was contacted by party chairman Stephen Bittel after a shooting sent two high schools into lockdown Tuesday morning and forced police to block roads in Richmond Heights. The shooting, in which a man and woman were wounded, caused problems for voters trying to access a nearby library and elementary and middle school where voting precincts were located, Bittel said.
Voters casting ballots at the precinct are deciding Tuesday in an election for Senate District 40 between Republican Jose Felix Diaz and Democrat Annette Taddeo. Bittel asked that the governor extend voting hours at the precincts -- set to close at 7 -- until 9 p.m.
"Voters were unable to access these polling places as a result of a shooting in the early morning which resulted in the police cordoning off three polling places. As a result, voters who intended to vote in the early morning were not able to do so," Bittel wrote. "Earlier today we asked the County whether it could take steps to assure that voters would have the ability to vote in this election as a result [of] this action, but were advised that only you could remedy this situation."
Scott's office, however, said the Department of State reported no issues and no reason to extend voting hours.
"The Florida Department of State has been in contact with local, independent elections officials in Miami-Dade who have reported no issues," said McKinley Lewis, deputy director of communications for the governor's office. "We will not be granting this request."
Christina White, Miami-Dade's Supervisor of Elections, said in an email that she wasn't aware of any problems caused by the shooting.
"This had no impact on voting. All precincts opened at 7 a.m. and those in the area served voters throughout the day," she wrote.
The Trump administration’s response to the hurricanes that ravaged Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands could become a Hurricane Katrina-like political disaster if he does not respond to the storms’ aftermath more decisively, congressional lawmakers from both parties warned Tuesday.
“I'm concerned about human suffering and potential loss of life if aid doesn't reach the places it needs to reach quickly enough,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who spent Monday in San Juan with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. “I hope that we don't see Katrina-like images.”
Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., one of five Puerto Ricans in Congress, warned Trump that “If you don’t take this crisis seriously, this is going to be your Katrina.”
President George W. Bush’s response to Katrina, which devastated parts of Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, was criticized as initially weak and insensitive.
“Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job,” Bush said as water and provisions were in short supply for New Orleans survivors of the storm.
Tuesday, lawmakers delivered the dire message to the White House following a Monday night tweet by Trump in which he spoke about the devastation in Puerto Rico but also mentioned the island’s debt crisis.
“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” the president wrote.
Read more here.