Some of Florida’s newest arrivals — Puerto Ricans fleeing the broken island after Hurricane Maria — got a high-profile visit Thursday from Vice President Mike Pence, who will head to San Juan on Friday.
“Don’t go to San Juan — go inside the country,” urged Everlinda Burgos, who landed at Orlando International Airport at 11:30 a.m. Thursday and met Pence less than six hours later. “That’s where the disaster is. There’s towns you can’t get into. They have no communications.”
“We’re going to work every part of Puerto Rico,” Pence said.
Burgos told the vice president that her son, who was unable to find a flight until November, remains in Puerto Rico. After she landed Thursday, she went to an airport relief center, one of three Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s administration opened earlier this week to assist evacuees. Some had tears in their eyes as Pence went by.
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“You’ll be here. You’ll be fine,” Pence told Burgos. “Then you’ll be able to go back home. There’s no place like home.”
Then, with her permission, he gave her a hug.
Pence is scheduled to travel to Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands on Friday as part of the White House’s push to draw attention to Maria’s devastation and the administration’s recovery efforts. The vice president will meet with Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp, visit churches in both locations and take an aerial Virgin Islands tour.
President Donald Trump went to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, a memorable trip in which — among other things — he tossed paper towels to hurricane victims gathered to collect emergency supplies. Trump never made it out of San Juan, so he missed seeing the worst of Maria’s destruction.
At the Orlando airport Thursday, Pence got a private briefing the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Later, he headed to the Iglesia de Dios in Kissimmee, the city at the heart of Central Florida’s robust Puerto Rican community. About 1 million Puerto Ricans live in Florida; as of Tuesday, some 6,000 had arrived since Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, according to the state.
Pence touted the federal response by rattling off the latest figures: 15,000 federal workers are in Puerto Rico, 11.5 million means and 8 million liters of water have delivered, and three-quarters of open gas stations have reopened, he said. Before leaving, Pence, his sleeves rolled up, stopped by the church parking lot and helped load bottles of Nestlé water and boxes of food onto a large yellow truck.
“Florida’s generosity is inspiring to me,” he said.
Pence was joined by his wife, Karen; Florida’s two U.S. senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio, and Puerto Rican resident commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón. Gov. Scott couldn’t make it because he was in Tallahassee preparing for Tropical Storm Nate, which could become a hurricane and swipe the Florida Panhandle later this week.
“Florida’s response to Hurricane Irma set a standard for the nation, and Florida’s response to the people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands is setting another standard of what it means to be neighbors,” Pence said at the church, which partnered with other ministries for a donation drive to help Puerto Rico that collected 15 trucks worth of goods and 150 generators.
“I say, from the bottom of my heart: muchas gracias.”
Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report from Miami.