Florida Politics

DeSantis says feds, not Florida, have role to play in Bahamian crisis

As the humanitarian crisis deepens in the Bahamas, the head of neighboring Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, is taking a hands-off approach, telling reporters Monday that it is not the state’s responsibility to assist in the recovery efforts.

“This is a relationship with a foreign country. The federal government is doing it,’’ DeSantis said after an appearance at Florida State University. He said that after an aerial tour of the Bahamas on Friday, he concluded that the U.S. Coast Guard is “doing a great job.”

“The idea that it should be the state’s responsibility, if you think that, then you have no idea how our system of government works,” he added. “I’ve been in contact with them. The idea that I would overstep the State Department is just absurd.”

DeSantis has urged people to donate to those affected by Hurricane Dorian through the Volunteer Florida website, and encouraged Floridians not to cancel their vacations to the Bahamian islands less affected by the storm. But his approach is a sharp contrast to how his two predecessors responded to natural disasters in the Caribbean in recent years.

In January 2010, when a 7.0 earthquake ripped through Haiti, then-Gov. Charlie Crist activated the state Emergency Operations Center to coordinate with state, federal and international disaster-response agencies and assigned state workers to help repatriate 27,000 Haitian Americans, and find families for 720 Haitian orphans.

And in 2017, when Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico devastated, then-Gov. Rick Scott used state resources to assist the U.S. territory, making seven trips to the island and setting up welcome centers in airports in Orlando, Tampa and Miami as almost 400,000 island residents moved to the mainland.

In both cases, however, it was an election year and Scott and Crist were candidates for U.S. Senate — even though then, as now, inclusive immigration policies are not considered popular with the Republican Party’s conservative base and Crist hadn’t yet left the party to challenge Marco Rubio as an independent.

In the aftermath of Dorian’s devastation, DeSantis joined with U.S. Sens. Scott and Rubio in an aerial tour of the affected islands. But the conservative Republican governor who was first elected last year has refrained from addressing the needs of the Bahamians. He instead has kept his focus on Floridians and Florida-based companies like the cruise industry “who have relationships with the Bahamas.”

“A lot of those islands that got really leveled, you probably have Floridian property owners in some of those places,’’ he said last week.

When DeSantis was asked Monday whether he will ask President Donald Trump to support requests by Republicans Rubio and Scott to waive or suspend visa requirements to allow Bahamians to temporarily live with relatives in Florida and other states, he said he would not.

“I’m not going to weigh in on that,’’ DeSantis said. “They got to figure out how they’re going to do the immigration stuff,’’ adding that he agrees with the president and the Bahamian government that they don’t “want to facilitate a big migration.”

“I think the main thing they’re trying to do is keep people in the Bahamas and bring them to safety because most of the Bahamas was not affected by this,’’ he said.

Difficult documentation

Speaking to reporters outside the White House on Monday, President Trump said everyone leaving the Bahamas for the U.S. must have proper documentation because the Bahamas has had “tremendous problems” with illegal immigration.

Rep. Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat with relatives in the Bahamas, said if the federal government doesn’t want to allow those into the country “who don’t have documentation right now, I disagree, but I get it.”

He also said that any talk of “big migration” was misleading.

“The Bahamians don’t want to migrate to Florida,’’ Jones said. “These are individuals who lost their homes, whose entire lives have been displaced. This is like your neighbor losing their house, asking to sleep over until they can get back on their feet.”

He is urging DeSantis to reconsider the state’s role in the recovery efforts. He suggested the state partially activate the Emergency Operations Center to assist with coordinating supplies, send state search and rescue teams, and to even send members of the Florida National Guard to help until President Trump decides what the federal response will be.

“The fact that Gov. DeSantis is hands off until the federal government moves worries me just a tad,’’ Jones said. “I believe the state can play a role in how we help the Bahamas and it can respond more quickly.”

He added that “because the Bahamas have a large stake here in the State of Florida, Democrats and Republicans on both sides have shown their concern and made it clear this has nothing to do with party. This is a humanitarian effort.”

State’s response to Haiti earthquake

That was the approach Crist took in 2010 when, on the day of the earthquake that decimated the island nation, he sent out a news release that said:

“As one of Haiti’s closest neighbors, Florida stands ready to offer assistance to those affected by today’s devastating earthquake. The Division of Emergency Management has notified the United States Department of State that we are ready to assist in every way possible.”

The next day, Crist announced that “operations, logistics, plans and human-services teams are prepared to assist with any mission requests” and “state officials are cataloging resources that can be made available to the island nation.”

And two days after the earthquake, Crist announced at a news conference in Miami that the Obama administration had agreed to temporarily suspend deportations of undocumented Haitian nationals who were in the United States during the recovery period.

Over the next several weeks, Florida sent supplies, such as cots, blankets, food and water to Haiti. The state sent two rescue units with canines to help people trapped in the rubble, and the Division of Emergency Management used its website, FloridaDisaster.org, as a clearinghouse for accepting donations.

In round-the-clock shifts that lasted a month, state employees met 1,056 flights of returning Haitian Americans at Sanford and Miami airports, where the Florida National Guard had set up welcome centers.

Department of Children and Families staff sheltered and processed 720 Haitian orphans destined for adoptive families and helped coordinate medical care for 628 medical evacuees. DCF handed out about $26 million in cash assistance and, at the urging of then-Secretary George Sheldon, also gave out 3,500 teddy bears.

Coordinating much of the effort was the State Division of Emergency Management and its then-director David Halstead.

The situation in the Bahamas now “is probably very similar — if the Bahamian government wants to ask for help,’’ Halstead said.

The state assistance could be coordinated through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), he said. In 2010, Florida’s response, including the medical care offered at facilities such as Baptist Hospital in Miami, was reimbursed by the federal government, he said. “Everybody was pretty happy with it.”

Jared Moskowitz, Florida’s current director of emergency management, disagreed that the disasters in Haiti and the Bahamas are comparable.

“Before Dorian there was no crisis in the Bahamas. Before the Haiti earthquake, there was a crisis in Haiti,’’ he said. “This is very early on. I don’t think anybody knows what the needs are truly going to be. If there are roles for us, I think you will see the state playing those roles.”

Rubio speaks out

Back then, Crist was a Republican U.S. Senate candidate and was locked in a primary battle against Rubio, the former state House Speaker from Miami. Crist is now a Democrat and a congressman from St. Petersburg.

Fast-forward to 2019 and Rubio has stepped up as the loudest voice for intervention on humanitarian grounds as the hurricane is expected to leave more than 70,000 homeless on the decimated islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama.

Rubio was the first to ask President Trump to waive visa requirements for people with relatives in the U.S., and he has called on the Department of Defense to deliver fuel, medicine, food, and other supplies to the devastated nation.

In a series of tweets, Rubio described Abaco as “a borderline catastrophic situation” and on Sunday urged USAID Administrator Mark Green to ask the Department of Defense to reposition the hospital ship USNS Comfort to the Bahamas.

Rubio also asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Green to provide an assessment of all humanitarian assistance readily available for the Bahamas under current accounts and whether additional funds will be needed for disaster relief.

Meanwhile, Scott on Monday echoed the same concerns as Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo and called on the federal government to be more clear in the kinds of documentation it is requiring of people fleeing the Bahamas and coming into the U.S. On Sunday, more than 100 people were stranded by a ferry operator who said they didn’t have the proper paperwork.

Scott also sent a letter to United Nations Secretary-General António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres saying he hoped that “every member of the United Nations will step up and join us as we do everything we can to support our friends in the Bahamas as they recover.”

DeSantis, however, has not expressed the same concerns.

“People are using visas now,” he said. “The president is working with the Bahamian government. But I think the main thing they’re trying to do is keep people in the Bahamas and bring them to safety. Most of the Bahamas was not affected by this, fortunately.”

Florida Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Riviera Beach, has asked DeSantis to detail what the state’s plan is to help those displaced by the hurricane.

“I am requesting that Gov. Ron DeSantis respond with plans to provide public information for migrants to help ease their transition to Florida residency, detail any anticipated budgetary impacts for increased service needs, and provide coordination of relief efforts in the Bahamas,’’ he said in a statement Monday.

Jones, the West Park state representative, said he just wants Florida “to reach out and allow people with families here to allow them to come.”

“Florida has too much of a stake in the Bahamian community for us not to respond appropriately,’’ he said. “And I’m not talking about people vacationing there.”

Miami Herald staff writer Monique O. Madan contributed to this report.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

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