While the federal government’s response to the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico has come under withering criticism, a panel of Florida’s leading voices praised Tallahassee’s year-long efforts to absorb thousands of Puerto Ricans seeking refuge after Hurricane Maria.
In the latest survey of the Florida Influencers, the state’s most prominent leaders across the political and policy spectrum described the ways leaders in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., have grappled with the aftermath of a storm that killed nearly 3,000 people and caused the largest blackout in U.S. history.
Asked to rate how well they thought the Florida government met the challenge of assisting as many as 50,000 Puerto Ricans fleeing the island, 70 percent of the Influencers responded with “excellent” or “good.” The Influencers were equally in agreement on the performance of the federal government, with 75 percent of respondents rating Washington’s support for the U.S. territory and its residents as “poor” or “fair.”
“The state got it about right, while the federal government should have had a more vigorous response,” said former GOP Sen. Mel Martinez. “There should have been a more immediate emergency response and more significant long-term response.”
“The state itself did the best job that it could,” added Terry DeCarlo, an LGBT activist from Orlando, where many of the displaced Puerto Ricans settled. “The federal government is a different story. They were so unprepared. … The wait times for help, for the hospital ships, and for supplies were unforgivable.”
Ahead of the November elections, the Florida Influencers will share their ideas on how to address the most pressing policy concerns facing the state and respond to questions from readers of the Miami Herald, Bradenton Herald and el Nuevo Herald.
After Hurricane Maria made landfall in September 2017, between 30,000 and 50,000 Puerto Ricans have relocated to Florida, according to Stefan Rayer, the director of the Population Program at University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.
AARP state director Jeff Johnson said Florida officials could have been more effective in arranging housing for the displaced Puerto Ricans. Otherwise, the Influencers had little criticism for the state’s response. Some specifically praised Gov. Rick Scott, who is now a candidate for U.S. Senate.
“Florida’s response to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria was immediate and comprehensive,” said Rhea Law, the chair of the Florida offices of the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. “Could we have done more – of course. However, the state of Florida acquitted itself well in this time of emergency.”
However, few Influencers agreed with President Donald Trump’s recent assessment that the federal government did a “fantastic job” responding Hurricane Maria.
“The federal government’s response was inadequate and leadership callous,” said Mike Fernandez, the chairman of MBF Healthcare Partners.
“It seemed that lessons learned from Katrina were forgotten,” added Joanne McCall, the president of the Florida Education Association.
Some Influencers noted the federal government was also dealing with the fallout from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which hit the U.S. mainland, as well as wildfires in California. But they also wondered why Puerto Rico has received less attention than the other affected areas.
“The late and poor federal response was unforgivable, especially with respect to health care and basic survival assistance,” said Al Cardenas, a senior partner at Squire Patton Boggs and former Florida Republican Party chairman. “One private chef volunteer fed more people than FEMA.”
Readers who weighed in using the “Your Voice” online tool wanted to know what efforts should be made to motivate relocated Puerto Ricans to vote in Florida this November.
Many Influencers said that the displaced Puerto Ricans should be treated the same as all other eligible voters in the state, and that the responsibility to encourage them to show up at the polls should lie with local political parties and groups rather than the government.
“If they are living in our communities, and they are eligible to register to vote, they should be allowed and encouraged to do so,” said Susan Towler, the vice president of the Florida Blue Foundation. “Why are they different from a Midwest retiree who relocates to Florida?”
Others thought the government should ease the process for Puerto Ricans to register to vote.
“If displaced Puerto Ricans … are to stay here for a while or permanently, efforts should be made expeditiously to update their voter information and ensure they can vote in upcoming elections,” said Eduardo Padron, the president of Miami Dade College. “They are Americans and must have the ability to vote.”
After the federal government bungled the hurricane response, some Influencers suggested Puerto Ricans won’t need much convincing to make their voice heard at the ballot box in November.
“What more motivation does one need to vote than when you are treated in a way that goes against your own well being?” asked Franklin Sirmans, the director of Pérez Art Museum Miami.
With less than two months to go until the midterms, the Influencers were asked how well they think candidates running for office are focusing on policy solutions. Here’s how they responded:
Very well: 0 percent
Fairly well: 15 percent
Somewhat well: 61 percent
Slightly well: 15 percent
Not all well: 10 percent
Too early to say: 0 percent
This is the seventh of a series of surveys the Miami Herald will conduct with 50 Influencers through the November elections to help focus media and candidate discussion around the policy issues of most importance to Floridians. Look for the next report on Sept.17 when Influencers will talk about charter schools in Florida. Share your thoughts and questions about the state’s important policy challenges and solutions here.
For more reaction from our Influencers on Puerto Rico, look for their quotes on Tuesday’s Opinion page.
George Haj contributed reporting.