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.
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.
The race to capture the Puerto Rican vote has begun. Last week the Republican Party of Orange County held a Lincoln Day Dinner honoring and welcoming Puerto Rican evacuees to the Orlando area.
It was a warning shot indicating the state GOP aims to fight for and win over Puerto Rican voters. The Democratic Party has not uttered much despite the wave of Democrat-leaning Puerto Ricans arriving daily in Florida – over 60 percent of Puerto Rican voters in Florida cast ballots for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Very likely, however, it is salivating over the prospect of turning purple Florida permanently blue.
Over 200,000 Puerto Ricans have arrived in Florida from Puerto Rico since the start of the hurricane evacuations in October, according to the office of Gov. Rick Scott. As American citizens, each Puerto Rican over the age of 18 is eligible to vote in Florida.
The twin hurricanes of Irma and María are creating opportunities for public policies that were once objectionable or non priorities in Florida. As more hurricane evacuees arrive in Florida, state elected officials are scrambling to respond to the sudden influx of Puerto Ricans.
Here are a few examples:
Game changer – Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló recently asked FEMA for Transitional Shelter Assistance or TSA, which he had been reluctant to do before. And understandably so. TSA would give temporary housing assistance to hurricane victims, a financial incentive that would encourage people to leave the island. The governor can hardly afford a continued outflux of people. Currently, few Puerto Rico businesses are open and few people are working, which means nobody is paying taxes. The island is broke –hence, the $4.9 billion federal emergency loan – and getting older by the day as the proportion of elderly increases. If people suddenly have the means to move, many will come to Florida, as has been the case for over a decade. TSA helps the people but it hurts the island.
Forcing the hands– The continuing stream of Puerto Ricans into Florida – over 70,000 in the last month, according to the governor’s office – is forcing the hands of local elected officials. For instance, housing affordability is an ages-old regional issue. The Legislature raids state affordable housing funds each year. Now officials are tasked with the serious job of finding decent and affordable housing for new arrivals. Remember, it’s hard to land a job without a permanent address. One state representative mentioned tent cities. Others have talked about mobile homes or trailers. Would Central Floridians, Hispanic or not, accept this?
Jobs, jobs, jobs – The influx of working-age Puerto Ricans is a godsend for the region’s employers, many of which are desperately looking to hire. With a September state unemployment rate of 3.8 percent – essentially zero unemployment – Puerto Ricans represent potential new hires at a time when companies, from tourism to retailers, are engaged in Christmas or seasonal hiring. These may not be permanent jobs or good-paying jobs in our low-wage region. Nonetheless, they are jobs for people looking to earn money. Thus, employers will be among those pushing hard for a resolution to affordable housing issues for hurricane evacuees. Perhaps this also helps explain Gov. RickScott‘s – the jobs governor – “welcoming” Puerto Rican newcomers.
The year 2016 is coming to an end with a bang on many fronts. Let’s turn to a few less obvious but newsy items that merit attention for their importance.
From the first news of the Pulse nightclub shooting on June 12, a tug of war erupted between the LGBTQ and Latino communities over who would take the lead in speaking for the 49 victims, most of whom were Hispanic, many of them Puerto Rican.
The LGBTQ community won the struggle, as evidenced by the six-month anniversary of the shooting at the Orange County History Center, where the Hispanic component of the shooting was nearly absent.
As reported in Orlando Latino, the ceremony host “forgot” to acknowledge the Pulse victims. Not one of the survivors or family members was called to the podium. Not one. The host mentioned only in passing that the history center opened a display of the tributes to Pulse collected from around town.
Government and others have now also buried the grass roots efforts that took place in the Latino community to help survivors and families, where groups such as Somos Orlando offered – and continues to offer – mental health counseling to the affected community.
But the Hispanic community has not been totally forgotten. In an Orlando Sentinelpoll conducted before the six-month anniversary, 21 percent said Pulse was an attack of terrorism, an attack against gays and Hispanics (italics mine). That was up from 13 percent in June.
Full disclosure: I was named to the board of Somos Orlando but have resigned this month.
Central Florida has about 11 Latino elected officials as a result of the 2016 elections, including Darren Soto, the first Florida Puerto Rican in Congress. About five are a net gain, meaning a Hispanic did not previously hold the seat.
Here are the winners: Víctor Torres, former state representative to state senator, District 15; Bob Cortés, re-elected to House District 30; John Cortés, re-elected to House District 43; René Plasencia, re-elected to the State House but representing a new area: District 50; AmyMercado elected to House District 48 previously occupied by her father Víctor Torres; CarlosGuillermo Smith elected to District 49; Emily Bonilla elected to the Orange County Commission, District 5; Armando Ramirez, re-elected as Clerk of the Court of Osceola County; José Alvarez elected the first Hispanic mayor of Kissimmee; and Olga González, elected to Kissimmee City Commission Seat 1.
An important lesson about early voting in the presidential election: About 70 percent of all Florida votes were cast before election day but the latest analyses indicate there is no correlation between early voting and higher voter turnout.
Early voting simply changed the way people voted, which is important for organizers to keep in mind for future elections.
President Barack Obama will have deported more than 2.75 million undocumented immigrants by the time he leaves office in several weeks, the highest number of any president – and some presidents combined, earning Obama the moniker of “Deporter in Chief.”
Of those deported, 84 percent had criminal records. That leaves over 820,000 of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions. If Trump delivers on his promise, there won’t be as many undocumented immigrants with criminal records to deport.
One of every five people or 20 percent enrolled in Obamacare lives in Florida, the highest percentage of any state. That’s over 1.3 million people, which is going to make it difficult for Washington to undo the Affordable Care Act without causing massive healthcare headaches for millions of people without other health care recourses.
There would be up to 800,000 more Obamacare customers in Florida if the state had expanded Medicaid, a key component of the health care act.
As of December 19, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services reports about, 6.4 million people had signed up for Obamacare for 2017, or about 2 million more than the year before, indicating that Obamacare has become more – not less – relevant.
Puerto Rico Financial Crisis
At year end, the new fiscal control board that’s poised to take over Puerto Rico in 2017 projected the island’s financial predicament is worse than had been reported, which was already pretty bad.
As reported in Orlando Latino, Puerto Rico’s projected 10-year deficit is $67 billion, or $10 billion higher than originally stated and nearly as much as the island and its public agencies owe bondholders.
Gov.-elect Ricky Rosselló must present a balanced budget, which would be a first in decades, requiring significant government cutbacks as well as deep reforms to keep the island economy from toppling completely.
Bottom line for Florida: The pain is likely to send more economic migrants to the Sunshine State, continuing a dramatic shift in the state’s Latino population. Puerto Ricans number over 1 million in Florida, compared with about 1.3 million Cubans, the state’s largest Latino group.
The final Zika numbers for Puerto Rico fell short of earlier predictions but are still alarming. The Puerto Rico Health Department reports nearly 36,000 islanders contracted mosquito-borne Zika, accounting for the lion’s share of locally transmitted cases under the U.S. flag.
Only 216 local cases were reported in the 50 states, with Florida making up 210 of those.
Zika can cause birth defects such as microcephaly in pregnant women. About 2,500 island women were infected in 2016, which is significantly below the 43,000 cases per year that were projected for Puerto Rico, as reported earlier in Orlando Latino.
Of those 2,500 cases only seven (7 ) resulted in infants with birth defects. The island has projected 1,000 fewer births this year due to Zika.