Sen. Bill Nelson insisted he did not want to speak about politics on Thursday. It was supposed to be a day to commemorate the nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans who died as a result of Hurricane Maria, which savaged the island last September.
The Democrat, who is running for re-election against Florida Gov. Rick Scott, was in downtown Miami to mark the one-year anniversary of Maria’s landfall and to call attention to the many problems still plaguing Puerto Rico as its people recover from the Category 5 storm.
“You want me to get into the politics, and I don’t think on this somber, solemn occasion of the trauma that the Puerto Rican people have gone [through] should I get into a tit for tat in politics. There’s going to be plenty of time for that,” Nelson said.
But with Scott in Puerto Rico, his eighth trip to the island since the hurricane hit, and a room full of TV cameras, Nelson questioned Scott’s recent slate of trips there.
“I’ll let you judge [Scott’s efforts to help Puerto Rico], but I will ask the question, How many times did he go and help Puerto Rico before the hurricane? and compare what this senator has been trying to do for years to help Puerto Rico including the financial crisis,” Nelson said.
Asked if he would visit Puerto Rico, where he has visited several times before and after the hurricane, Nelson said he would not travel there before the general election in November.
“I do [but] not before the election,” he said. “My election is here but I expect other officials in the island will be coming to Florida and endorsing me.”
Nelson, who spoke Thursday at a press conference held at the Borinquen Medical Centers of Miami-Dade, was joined by members of the local Puerto Rican community as well as State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, former Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and Puerto Rican soap opera actor Osvaldo Rios.
The purpose of the event was to highlight efforts to speed up recovery on the island and to criticize the federal government’s preparations for Hurricane Maria and its response to the storm’s devastation.
“This should not be happening to our American citizens,” Nelson said. “FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] was not prepared. The electric grid of course was already decrepit. But the preparations for restoring electricity was not there, the distribution system was not there, food sat on the docks in the harbor and as a result rotted, and the supplies and the food did not get out. And then, just to add insult to injury, the president says no more than 6 or 15 [people] died. When in fact everybody knows that it was almost 3,000.”
Both Gov. Scott and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, the Republican nominee for governor, have distanced themselves from Trump’s comments on the death toll.
Nelson said he was not surprised the Republicans would break from Trump over his comments, but he pointed out that Scott could not say what he would do differently in Puerto Rico had he been in Trump’s position.
“How about rebuilding the electrical system so that we have back-ups and it’s not all dependent on the generating plant down in Ponce, on the southern end of the island? How about reintegrating solar?” Nelson said. “If we plan ahead with solar, then there will be adequate back-ups when the next hurricane comes. As we know, the Carribean and even Florida is known as Hurricane Highway. So we need to be prepared for the next big one.”
Penelas, who served on the county commission in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew roared through South Florida, said it would take well over a year for Puerto Rico to rebuild.
“I think today is about recognizing that there is so much more to be done. It truly is a forgotten island,” he said. “And to me it’s ironic, especially in the political environment that we’re in now, where many people are congratulating themselves for everything that has occurred already yet they forget like the senator mentioned that there is so much need.”