More Difficult Phase of Hurricane Relief Underway

The Hurricane María Disaster Relief Center at Orlando International Airport, seen in November, has helped thousands of Puerto Rican evacuees. /Maria Padilla

The 2018 new year will open a second, more difficult, phase of Hurricane María relief efforts for Puerto Ricans in Central Florida, after the new arrivals center at Orlando International Airport closes its doors on December 29.

The shuttering of the facility – which has helped 34,000 mostly Puerto Ricans since it opened October 3, including at  Miami-Dade airport and Port Everglades – will leave Central Florida with two relief centers, one each in Osceola and Seminole counties. Orange County, which partnered with agencies at the airport, is opening a relief center before year’s end.

The assistance needed in the new year will be different from the aid first offered to evacuees, who are escaping unlivable conditions on the island – as of this writing, Puerto Rico has gone nearly 100 days without full electricity, the longest blackout in U.S. history. Orlando-area agencies have to grapple with efforts to help stabilize the lives of evacuees, by definition a thornier initiative, given the lack of available resources, most significantly affordable housing.

Stabilizing Lives

What happens when temporary housing vouchers expire for thousands of people living in motels mostly in Osceola and Orange? Will elected officials continue to point “that-a-way” toward who is responsible for stepping up to the plate? Will they join forces to tackle issues together?

The Hurricane María Disaster Relief Center, as the center is officially known, was an extraordinary move by gubernatorial executive order but it didn’t come with state dollars attached. Each agency has borne the cost of its involvement.

Hurricane Relief

Evacuees in Orlando received:

  • Job referrals
  • Health services
  • Assistance from FEMA
  • Emotional and spiritual care
  • Food assistance
  • Public school registration
  • Clothing assistance
  • ID cards or drivers licenses
  • Lynx bus passes

This does not include the over 4,000 students who have enrolled in Orange County schools and over 2,000 in Osceola, which has the highest concentration of Puerto Ricans in the state of Florida. Gov. Rick Scott this week called on Congress to pass relief funding to provide “critical funding for local school districts enrolling students displaced from Puerto Rico,” among other things.

Lamentably, most local Latino efforts are understandably focused on aid to Puerto Rico, but they need to start focusing attention on local assistance for the tens of thousands of evacuees here. In fact, the only local Latino group providing assistance to Puerto Rican evacuees is Latino Leadership Inc., according to information provided by the governor’s office. That is not enough.

Another local group CASA, or Coordinadora de Apoyo, Solidaridad y Ayuda, has sent 2 million pounds of food and supplies to Puerto Rico. Coordinator Jimmy Torres Vélez of Iniciativa Acción Puertorriqueña said he would turn his attention to Orlando “very soon” by participating in case management along with other agencies at its 19,000 square-foot warehouse on Goldenrod Road owned by Orange County government. That is good news, as the warehouse is stocked with food and supplies that could be put to good use here.

New Housing Legislation

State Rep. Bob Cortés (R-Altamonte Springs and a member of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness) is probably the state’s most vocal supporter of the Puerto Rican evacuees, pushing Gov. Scott to do more. He has proposed House Bill 987 on affordable housing.

The bill steps on several political toes by calling for a five-year ban on impact fees, causing indigestion among local elected officials who depend on impact fees for additional revenue and opponents of growth who depend on the fees to slow development of the area’s open space. (It’s unclear whether an impact fee ban would propel affordable housing.)

It also pushes lawmakers to restore Sadowski funds, a state trust for affordable housing that the Legislature raids each year, grabbing about half of it or $150 million to fill budget holes.

Cortés wrote in a tweet that the proposed legislation, “[i]ncludes policy changes from local & state,” and then he tweaked the noses of federal elected officials, stating “Now if we get help from the , it will be complete .

To be fair to other state legislators, Cortés is in the Republican majority, while all of Orange County’s Hispanic federal and state delegations are in the Democratic minority – Congressman Darren Soto, State Sen. Víctor Torres, State Reps. Amy Mercado and Carlos Guillermo Smith. Two other congressional officials with a sizable number of Latino constituents – Cong. Val Demings and Cong. Stephanie Murphy – also are Democrats.

Other Considerations

Clearly, the upcoming legislative session also will need to cough up more funds for education to accommodate the new students as well as medical care in the form of Medicaid – in a state that never accepted Obamacare, which called for a significant expansion of Medicaid. (NOTE: Because Florida was a Hurricane Irma disaster area, the Obamacare sign up period expires December 31.) More funds should be channeled to local non profits that are first in line to provide evacuee assistance but last in line for funding.

The December 29 closing of Florida’s Hurricane María Relief Centers, the legislative session and local efforts are the most important determining factors in the next phase of aid to Puerto Rican evacuees.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

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