Rick Scott declares emergency in Florida for Puerto Rico, opens relief centers

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Gov. Rick Scott declared an emergency in Florida Monday covering all 67 counties to provide assistance to Puerto Rico, and he announced the creation of Puerto Rican disaster relief centers in Orlando and Miami for people fleeing the devastation left behind by Hurricane Maria nearly two weeks ago.

“Today, to ensure Florida has every available resource ready to assist families displaced by Hurricane Maria, I signed Executive Order 17-259, declaring a state of emergency in all 67 Florida counties,” Scott stated in a news release issued by his office. “Puerto Rico was totally devastated by Hurricane Maria and so many families lost everything. With families displaced by Hurricane Maria already present and still arriving in Florida, it is critical that our state is prepared to provide the resources they need upon entering our state.”

The order includes authorizing the state’s adjutant general, Florida National Guard Army Maj. Gen. Michael Calhoun, to activate the Florida National Guard as needed. The order instructs newly-appointed Florida Director of Emergency Management Bryan Koon to execute the state’s emergency management plan as needed. It instructs local authorities including law enforcement agencies to identify staff to coordinate local efforts. And it suspends any laws, rules, or orders that “would in any way prevent, hinder or delay any mitigation response or recovery action necessary.”

In a separate move, Scott announced the creation of disaster relief centers at Orlando International Airport, Miami International Airport and the Port of Miami, to assist Puerto Rican families displaced by Hurricane Maria. The centers, which will be fully operational Tuesday, will provide “all available resources from the state” to incoming evacuees.

Most of those efforts appear to be in response and anticipation of a mass exodus of Puerto Rican evacuees coming to Florida because their homes, towns, villages, and businesses were wiped out in Puerto Rico, leaving them with nothing to live on there. No one is certain how many would come, and any initial exodus has been slowed by the limited numbers of flights and ships available. Some have suggested more than 100,000 evacuees might come to the Sunshine State, particularly to areas such as Central Florida that already are home to hundreds of thousands of their relatives and friends.

Lawmakers and others, particularly Democats, had been calling on Scott to take actions all weekend, particularly to open the relief centers. On Friday,  state Sens. Jeff Clemens, Randolph Bracy, Jose Javier Rodriguez, Linda Stewart, and Victor Torres and state Reps. Janet Cruz, Robert Asencio, Daisy Baez, John Cortes, Nicholas Duran, Amy Mercado, and Carlos Guillermo Smith signed a letter to Scott urging him to open disaster relief centers for evacuees, and to take other steps. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham joined their call Sunday. Some, led by Smith of Orlando, also called on the Florida Legislature to hold a special session and “take action in preparation for the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans expected to resettle in Florida in the near future.”

Scott visited Puerto Rico on Thursday and said then he was willing to do whatever Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló  requested of Florida, but that his first goal was to help Rosselló help his constituents in Puerto Rico.

“Our goal is to make sure that while Gov. Rosselló is working to rebuild Puerto Rico, any families displaced by Maria that come to Florida are welcomed and offered every available resource from the state,” Scott stated on Monday.

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected]