Governor Offers No Answers for Puerto Rico Evacuees

Gov. Rick Scott had no answers to pressing questions about Puerto Rico evacuees.

Gov. Rick Scott’s meeting with local officials to talk about Puerto Rico evacuees didn’t satisfy anyone looking for answers to questions about homelessness, housing, schools, jobs and transportation.

It’s not cheap welcoming over 140,000 evacuees to Florida, as Scott has done, and each level of government is eyeing the other for spending monies – cities are looking to counties, which in turn are looking to the state. Florida is looking to the federal government. Scott talks about “collaboration” among governments, pushing the issue down the totem pole without $$$.

At last week’s conference, Scott said it was up to local government to choose from available options, “because they have better information than anybody does at the state and federal level.” Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials added that its housing options– housing is the most critical issue for evacuees –  are limited because the hurricane disaster didn’t happen here.

To make matters worse, Scott’s proposed 2018-2019 state budget continues to raid housing trust funds – to the tune of $92 million, the Miami Herald reported – at a time when Florida needs those dollars the most for victims of Hurricanes Irma and evacuees from Hurricane María.

Perplexed

Still, the governor added, “I do want to make sure people have the resources they need,” a comment that left conference attendees perplexed.

There’s no doubt that Florida has spent millions of dollars on hurricane relief efforts both here and in Puerto Rico. Each time the governor sends a crew to the island to help with hurricane recovery, that cost money. Establishing Florida’s three relief centers, including one at Orlando International Airport, cost money because it pulls state personnel and resources away from their regular tasks. Free 90-day state IDs cost taxpayers’ money. Free Lynx bus passes costs money.

The swirl of activity looks good for a governor expected to run for U.S. Senate in 2018. Indeed, the governor said he would not stop promoting Florida.

Something Has to Give

But something has to give.

It seems local governments are holding on to their pennies. Nobody wants to overcommit because money is tight after Hurricane Irma slammed Florida. Plus, cities and counties are afraid to get stuck with the bill.

Local governments conduct disaster relief, clean up and recovery efforts with the understanding that FEMA will reimburse their costs. But payments are slow in coming.

When Harvey hit Houston, Florida’s Atlantic coast cities were still awaiting payments for the 2016 Hurricane Matthew cleanup.  FEMA postponed those payments to divert funds to Houston. Emergency management folks often refer to this as the “disaster after the disaster.”

Disaster after the Disaster

Disaster paperwork is hefty and the appeals process that follows low-ball FEMA reimbursements is lengthy. State government must review local government appeals and, according to a story published in the Daytona Beach Journal in September, Florida botched a number of appeals this year, some dating as far back as 2005, the era of Hurricane Katrina.

Going back even further, the 1980 Cuban Mariel boat lift that swamped South Florida and whose immigrant numbers are similar to Puerto Rico’s post-María migration, reportedly left the state with $150 million in unpaid local and state bills, former Gov. Bob Graham told the New York Times in 1984.

Then as now, FEMA’s ineptitude generated local panic, with some Miami-Dade officials creating a tent city under Interstate 95  to “shock” the state and federal governments into action, they told the Miami Herald in a special report published for the 25th anniversary of the boat lift.

Collaborative Effort

Today, a tent city anywhere in Central Florida would be unacceptable. Woe to the elected official who proposes it.

That leaves elected officials from the Legislature on down no choice but to collaborate, as Scott suggested. But Scott’s unrealistic proposed  budget, coupled with lack of funds today for everything from housing to schools,  is not going to work.

Everybody is for cooperation among governments but real dollars help too.

 

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

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