Scott Powers, Author at Florida Politics - Page 5 of 169

Scott Powers

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 Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused.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

Teresa Jacobs: Orange County’s role limited for Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans

Help for Puerto Rico and for Puerto Ricans evacuating to Florida is going to be best provided by the rapidly-rising group of private groups, churches, and companies and government coordination will have to be done by the state, leaving little direct power for Orange County and other counties, Mayor Teresa Jacobs said Tuesday.

Jacobs and the Orange County Board of Commissioners struggled Tuesday to come to any clear role for the local government, particularly in anticipation of a likely but still-undefined exodus that has the potential to relocate 100,000 or more islanders to Florida, many of them to Central Florida.

Jacobs and the commissioners, notably Pete Clarke and Jennifer Thompson, whose districts have large Puerto Rican populations already, and Emily Bonilla, who is is Puerto Rican, all expressed strong desires to help. But Jacobs made it clear she is convinced that the Florida Division of Emergency Management has to do all coordination, especially with federal agencies, and local groups like CASA, I-4 For Puerto Rico and others will be best off without local government trying to direct them.

As for housing, warehousing for donations and other services, those too, appear to be outside the county government’s hands, she said.

“I know there is this assumption that because we are the government closest to the pole in Orange County, that we have more authority than we have in the process,” she said.

The discussion included a strong consensus on that point from the other commissioners, even Bonilla, who had sought the forum with the hope that the county might set up a coordinating committee or something. Jacobs conceded that she would look for a point person in the administration to become a liaison between ground-level private and volunteer groups and state officials, and to identify county red tape that might be cut.

“The important thing is the direction has to come from the state,” Jacobs said later. “We’re the boots on the ground. We very well might need to execute, but we need the state to decide what the plan is. You have to remember, this is not an Orange County situation, or an Osceola County situation. We have evacuees that will be coming all over the state, but primarily to six or seven counties that have large Puerto Rican populations. We would expect those to be the homes of most of the evacuees…. It needs to be a unified approach.”

That would include any additional county spending, which would have to be coordinated by the state through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assure they are eligible for federal reimbursements, she said. The county has no warehouses, and Jacobs expressed doubt that the massive Orange County Convention Center would be appropriate.

The commission’s discussion came six hours after a series of volunteer activists and others working to help Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans evacuating to Florida pleaded with the commission to help make the connections to plug government services and muscle into the ground-level efforts well underway. Jacobs was ill and did not attend the morning session, but said she watched it on the County’s TV link.

Many of those who spoke from the grassroots effort sought to make sure they were critical to local response, something that Commissioners Bonilla, Clarke and Thompson all agreed with.

“We have seen our community come together in ways we have never seen in the past. Each one of us has a loved one back home that has lost everything. Schools, hospitals and entire communities were destroyed,” said Jimmy Torres, organizer of CASA, a coalition of numerous groups that has collected hundreds of pallets of supplies and arranged to send it to Puerto Rico.

I-4 for Puerto Rico, co-organized by Randy Ross, has led a similar effort.

Yet there were numerous calls for direct help from the county.

Among those who spoke was Eddy Dominguez, a Democratic candidate for next week’s special election to fill the vacancy in Florida House District 44, who identified himself as arriving with numerous hats, including as a volunteer and supporter with CASA; chair of LatinoLeadership, which is partnering with the Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to run the Puerto Rico Family Response Center on the county’s east side; and as senior executive vice president of Resource Employment Solutions, which is working to find jobs for Puerto Rican evacuees.

“We’re here for a very important reason, and that’s to request your assistance and your support as representatives of Orange County government,” Dominguez said. “You can stand up. You can be the beacon. You can shine the light. We need logistical support. We need access to county resources, so our efforts can be put to most efficient use. We need financial support. Our efforts can be multiplied exponentially with support of the county, through both monitory assistance as well as access to County facilities and operational support.”

“And last, public solidarity. It would mean the world to the many volunteers… if you stand up as unified, to let everyone knows that Orange County government stands together to assist in this time of crisis,” Dominguez said.

At least that last point was assured. Jacobs, Bonilla, Clarke, Thompson and the other commissioners all expressed strong personal empathy, even connections, with the plight of Puerto Rico and the realization that many people who lost everything likely were coming.

It was left to Vice Mayor Victoria Siplin to express that to the morning speakers, and she added the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are places that are suffering.

“We know, especially the family members here, we understand your pain, your suffering, your wanting to help, your willingness to help those in need, and yet you don’t have that access, to help somebody,” Siplin said. “I want you to understand that we feel you. We understand what you are going through. We will get through this together.”

After Las Vegas, Chris King condemns inaction on gun laws, calls for action

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris King responded to the Las Vegas massacre by lashing out at “Florida’s one-party government” for not pursuing gun law changes after the Pulse nightclub massacre, saying it is time for action.

“We can pray for the victims and their families, but that alone won’t stop it from happening again,” King stated in a news release and on social media. “There are many people who are angry, myself included, with the nonstop incidences of gun violence in America.”

King charged that Florida lawmakers failed to implement proposals for universal background checks for gun purchases, limits on the size of firearms magazines and ending the prohibition on studies of gun violence after the shooting at Pulse June 12, 2016 — which killed 49 and wounded 53.

He also noted the lack of spending on mental health services, which he said ranks 50th nationally.

“In Florida, our one-party state government in Tallahassee did not act to implement these ideas,” King said.

King, a Winter Park developer of affordable housing and senior housing, faces Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee in seeking the Democratic nomination to run for governor in 2018. The leading Republicans are Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam of Bartow and state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater.

“No political leader can ever guarantee that but for this law or that policy, a tragedy could have been prevented. But there is no doubt that the United States has much more it can do to combat gun violence,” King concluded. “There is nothing more noble to be done to honor the victims of this most recent tragedy in Nevada than to combine action with our prayers.”

Puerto Rico exodus begun; groups struggling to help

Monday morning there was a line through the parking lot at the Puerto Rico Family Response Center in Orlando: Puerto Rican families waiting for it to open to offer relocation help in Florida, and LatinoLeadership Inc. President Marytza Senz, who is running the ad-hoc center, said she also took 40 calls by 7:30 a.m.

That’s in addition to the 150 or more calls that came in over the weekend, she said.

“We are overwhelmed,” Senz said, though the center, a crowded bustle of activity on Orange County‘s east side, was successfully helping Puerto Ricans evacuating from the devastation of Hurricane Maria with everything from places to stay to enrollment of children in Orange schools, and from job placement to obtaining prescriptions.

On Monday Gov. Rick Scott announced the state would open Puerto Rico disaster relief centers at Orlando International Airport and in Miami to help the still-unknown number of islanders who are, or will be, fleeing to Florida because they have nothing left at home.

He also declared a state of emergency in Florida, freeing up officials to provide a variety of help.

Other agencies are gearing up too, along with various churches and civic groups. Yet coordination and red-tape management already are adding to more fundamental problems, like families who once had decent lives showing up in the Sunshine State without paperwork and, in some cases, without an extra set of clothes.

LatinoLeadership and the Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce have established the Puerto Rico Family Response Center at LatinoLeadership’s modest and hard-to-find center at 8617 E. Colonial Dr. They also have another advantage: Senz’ son-in-law is state Rep. Rene Plasencia of Orlando, who, since returning from Puerto Rico himself over the weekend, is lending a full-time hand there. He’s using his connections to reach into local and state bureaucracies, even Scott’s executive office, to get help.

They’re planning to move some of the program soon to the Azalea Park United Methodist Church, which is not far from Orlando International Airport.

Other issues are more complicated and specific to unique needs, with some groups beginning to step up. The Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida, for example, recognized that all three law schools in Puerto Rico are shut down indefinitely. Two of them, and their deans, cannot even be reached. So the group, led by Anthony Suarez of Orlando and Marie Masson of Clermont, is arranging to get Puerto Rican law students admitted to stateside law schools on an emergency, temporary basis. Already 51 are in the process of transferring, and more are expected as word somehow gets to them on an island where almost no one has electricity or phone service.

No one is certain how many Puerto Ricans might be coming to Florida, and transportation off the island still is limited, booked up for weeks. Plasencia said he supposed 50,000-100,000 may be coming. Other estimates have exceeded 100,000, and he said he heard that while he was on the island caring for family over the weekend.

Clearly, as evidenced by the crowds at the newly-named Puerto Rico Family Response Center, the flow has begun.

About half of those showing up now have family or friends in Central Florida, but many do not, Senz said.

“They are homeless,” she said. “Families are showing up homeless.”

“When they are filling out paperwork for food stamps they are being asked for a permanent address, and they don’t have a permanent address,” she said.

Some have health crises. One cruise ship came into Miami filled with hospital patients. One woman from that ship arrived at the center this morning in the midst of cancer treatment. She had nothing, and no idea where to go. Another family showed up that had been on a pleasure cruise when the hurricane hit, and rather than return to Puerto Rico, the ship dropped everyone in Fort Lauderdale. The family made their way to Orlando, and to the center, where they said their 11-year-old son has diabetes and needs insulin.

They’re working on it, she said.

LatinoLeadership had run a pantry, and had filled it with goods in the previous week to send to Puerto Rico, but now has decided to hand it out to evacuees instead, because they are arriving with nothing. Even those with families and friends locally, many times those families already are struggling financially themselves, so adding four, five, six new family members is almost impossible. The center also has to deal with landlords reluctant to waive lease conditions limiting how many people can sleep in an apartment.

One thing the center can provide, that Senz and others worry the official state centers might neglect, are people from Puerto Rico, who speak the language, who know the towns, who’ve made the transition.

“They need everything. The most important thing is the guidance, somebody who knows the culture really makes a difference,” Senz said.

“What I’ve seen today, some of them, Orlando is going to be home, permanently. Other ones are here here saying, ‘I want to go back.’ But they are crying, because they feel they left their country, they left those they love,” she said. “But what I am saying is they did the right thing for the security of their family.”

Others are finding bureaucratic nightmares, such as the families applying for food stamps but being told they need permanent addresses.

Of the promises from state and local officials to offer whatever they can, “Right now, if it’s happening, it’s a quiet initiative, and nobody knows,” Senz said. “When you see everybody coming here from Puerto Rico, that means people don’t know.”

Plasencia said he’s made those calls and sees the state and local officials mobilizing, but added, “I don’t know if we’ve made the right adjustments already. With the influx of people coming, you just can’t anticipate some of these kinks that are happening. And that’s what we’re dealing with right now.”

One woman in the office Monday said she’s trying to enroll her young brother from Puerto Rico in an Orange County school, but was told she couldn’t without his transcripts. Plasencia assured her that Orange County Public Schools has waived those requirements.

But the school she contacted apparently hadn’t read that memo.

It was another call to make Monday.

Jack Miles endorses Stockton Reeves in HD 47 race

Former Florida Department of Management Services secretary Jack Miles issued his endorsement Monday of Republican Stockton Reeves in the race for Florida’s House District 47 seat.

Reeves, a Winter Park businessman, faces Democrat Anna Eskamani, a Planned Parenthood executive, in the 2018 election race to succeed state Rep. Mike Miller, a Republican who is running for Congress rather than for re-election.

Miles, a former executive with Cigna, served as management services secretary under Gov. Rick Scott, and currently serves as a member of the board of directors of national and local non-profits, on the advisory board of four early stage, pre-initial public offering firms.  He also served as a trustee for Florida TaxWatch and a member of the TaxWatch Center for Government Efficiency, and also as a member of the Government Efficiency Task Force for the State of Florida.

“Stockton Reeves has always impressed me as someone with an understanding of financial planning and budgeting for the future,” Miles stated in a news release issued by Reeves’ campaign. “He helped start and grow several successful business ventures and served as a trustee for a cherished Central Florida cultural institution, the Maitland Art Center, for almost 20 years including an unprecedented three terms as its chairman.”

“He has overseen the growth of his family’s business from a locally based planning and design firm to one that now serves clients across the nation. That’s impressive because in the face of one of nation’s deepest recessions, they expanded by opening an office in Texas and today are working in sixteen states across the United States. Their client base is local governments so Stockton understands the importance of spending tax dollars wisely and seeking the best value for every expenditure,” Miles added.

“To grow and expand in uncertain economic times takes foresight, courage and planning. Stockton exhibits all of these qualities and I believe he would be an excellent representative for Central Florida and an asset to the state. His business experience and background would serve us all and that’s why I am proud to offer my help and support for Stockton. I truly believe he is best prepared to serve,” Miles concluded.

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

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 Wes Maul 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.”

The governor’s office indicated these moves were in the works for nearly a week, and took time to set up.

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.


Slow early-voter turnout for HD 44 special election favors Republicans

With very little early-voter turnout during the first weekend heading towards the Oct. 10 special election to fill the vacant seat in Orange County‘s House District 44, Republican Bobby Olszewski appears to have a clear advantage over his Democratic rival Eddy Dominguez, a late-addition replacement candidate.

Just 443 votes were cast Saturday and Sunday in the first weekend of early voting, less than a half-percent of the total registered voter base in the district, which covers southwest Orange County including parts or all of the cities and towns of Winter Garden, Ocoee, and Windermere, and the large unincorporated communities of Dr. Phillips and Hunters Creek.

Another 4,488 mail-in ballots had been received by the end of Sunday, according to the Orange County Property Appraiser’s Office. That brings the  votes to just under 4 percent of the electorate.

On Friday, Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles said he was expecting somewhere between 11 and 14 percent voter turnout in the race to replace Republican former state Rep. Eric Eisnaugle of Windermere, who resigned last spring to take a judicial appointment.

Cowles’ office released the party breakdown of the early voters, and it shows a commanding advantage for Republicans, though the raw numbers were small. Of those people who came to one of the three early-voting centers on Saturday or Sunday, 251 were Republicans —that’s 57 percent of the early-voting turn-out. Just 133 Democrats came early, plus 59 independent voters.

In recent years, Democrats usually had early-voter advantages over Republicans, while Republicans held advantages among mail-in voters.

With the voter registration book closing, HD 44’s voter base was 36 percent Republican, 32 percent Democrat, and 32 percent independent or other-party voters.

Olszewski, a businessman and former Winter Garden city commissioner, won a bruising Republican primary election on Aug. 15. He’s campaigned since March.

Dominguez was named less than two weeks ago as the Democrats’ replacement candidate after Paul Chandler withdrew. Dominguez is not on the ballots, but any votes for Chandler are being counted for him.

Early voting runs through Saturday, Oct. 7.

Long-distance romance: Karen and Pete Sessions calling Dallas, not Winter Park, home

Ever since former Winter Park City Commissioner Karen Diebel married Texas’ U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions in 2012, questions swirled about whether Winter Park was unofficially gaining a member of Congress or losing a fixture in Central Florida politics, most recently with renewed questions about whether the congressman was living in Texas or Florida; but both Sessions insist it’s Winter Park’s loss, not gain.

Karen Sessions and Congressman Sessions’ press secretary both said late last week that it’s Karen Sessions who is commuting regularly from Texas to Florida, not him. Their Dallas home has officially become her home, even though she’s staying in Florida as much as she can until her last son graduates from high school.

The issue emerged again last week, from Democrats, when Republican state Rep. Mike Miller of Winter Park set fundraisers in Winter Park and Washington for his congressional campaign in Florida’s 7th Congressional District. Karen and Pete Session, both Republicans, were listed as hosts, though neither actually attended either fundraiser.

Democrats, following a suspicion first raised by Congressman Sessions’ Republican critics three years ago, are charging that he’s not in Dallas, at least not much. The Democrats are targeting Sessions in the 2018 election, partly because his district went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, suggesting a partisan evolution.

“It makes sense that Congressman Pete Sessions is hosting a fundraiser in Florida, where his family has called home since 2012; what’s weird is the fact that Pete Sessions is still running for office in Texas. He’ll have some explaining to do to people back in Dallas, but first he’ll have to introduce himself – from what I hear they haven’t seen him in a while,” said Cole Leiter, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Pete Sessions has served in Congress since 1997 and now is the powerful chairman of the House Rules Committee. With two sons of his own from a previous marriage, he’s kept a Dallas home and maintained a Texas homestead exemption on that house. Karen Sessions is now listed on that homestead exemption as well.

Karen Sessions, who ran for Congress herself in 2010, has kept her home in downtown Winter Park, raising her three sons there since her first husband was killed in a tragic accident. She maintained her Florida homestead exemption, making the Winter Park home her official residence, until recently. She said she has withdrawn her exemption now. She also changed her voter registration to Texas last year.

It is a complicated family situation, but the congressman has not left his district, she said.

“I do commute from Winter Park to Dallas. I commute from Dallas to Winter Park, so we can get all my sons out of high school and into college,” said Karen Sessions, a telecommunications consultant. “Pete doesn’t come to Winter Park. He’s based in the district, doing his work, and in Washington, doing his work. It’s always been like that, and it hasn’t ever changed.”

“He’s in Dallas right now. He has a home in Uptown,” Pete Sessions’ communications director Caroline Boothe said on Friday, the day after the Miller Winter Park fundraiser. Uptown is an upscale neighborhood north of downtown. “Their home is in Dallas.”

Suspicions to the contrary first were publicly raised in 2014 by Republicans. Pete Sessions’ Republican primary challenger, Tea Party activist Katrina Pierson [who went on to be a spokeswoman for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign], charged that Sessions was no longer living in Dallas at that time.

Democrats raised it again last week after the Sessionses were listed on Miller’s fundraisers.

Karen Sessions’ Winter Park homestead exemption still is listed online by the Orange County Property Appraiser’s Office. The office of Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh said the office has not yet received her request to withdraw it.


Joining relief effort, Gwen Graham blasts Donald Trump’s Puerto Rico response as ‘appalling’

While joining a relief effort in Orlando that included U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy and several Florida lawmakers and local leaders, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham blasted President Donald Trump‘s response to Puerto Rico as “appalling” Saturday.

Graham said that the world was witnessing “a failure of planning” for a deadly hurricane that was seen coming at Puerto Rico almost a week out.

“Puerto Ricans are Americans and they deserve the same attention and response that the people of Texas has seen and what the people of Florida have seen. It’s appalling what this administration has done,” Graham said.

Graham, a former U.S. Congresswoman from Tallahassee, also said, “I don’t even have words for his tweets this morning,” referring to Trump’s tweets blasting San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz and charging that Puerto Rican workers were not helping with the relief effort, and that all was going well, despite what “fake news” media were reporting.

“We need leadership. We need people are willing to have a moral high ground and do what’s right for every American, and he has not shown that leadership,” she continued.

Graham also criticized efforts by Gov. Rick Scott to offer assistance, saying “I haven’t seen anything.”

Graham, has been outspoken about the need for more help for Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria devastated the island almost two weeks ago. She stepped up her criticism Saturday while joining the relief effort led by CASA at the Acacia Florida Puerto Rican Center in Orlando.

Her comments were not alone. On Friday both of her fellow Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Winter Park developer Chris King and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, also blasted the federal response. King accused the administration of letting “self-importance and arrogance” get in the way of help. Gillum accused Trump of showing disregard for the lives and property of people in Puerto Rico.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam, Florida’s agriculture commissioner, also has been outspoken about the need for more relief help for Puerto Rico. He urged such help to the Florida Chamber of Commerce at a conference earlier in the week.

On Saturday Graham joined in on a relief effort that is filling a parking lot at Acacia in east Orange County with water, nonperishable foods, and supplies bound for Puerto Rico, in a largely private, volunteer effort organized by CASA, or Coordinadora de Apoyo, Solidaridad y Ayuda [coordinated support of solidarity and help], and other community groups.

Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith helped organize an additional effort there Saturday through Orlando United, a Pulse support organization,  to draw volunteers from among the families, friends, and survivors, and first responders, of the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre.

They also were joined by Graham, Murphy, the Winter Park Democrat, and a number of other mostly Democratic political leaders, including state Sen. Victor Torres of Orlando, state Reps. Amy Mercado of Orlando, John Cortes of Kissimmee, and Orange County Commissioner Emily Bonilla. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer also had planned to stop by. Republican elected official and leaders also have contributed time, supplies, and visibility to the CASA efforts at Acacia and elsewhere, though this day was largely a time for the Democrats.

Murphy declined to comment, saying she wanted the day to be about helping Puerto Rico. And then, in an Orlando United/Pulse T-shirt, she went into a relief supplies tent and helped sort donated items, as a long line of cars backed up onto Econlockhatchee Road, full of goods coming in for delivery.

“This is a great event. There were over 600 people who said they are going, on Facebook, over 3,000 people who said they were interested. This is a movement of people in Orlando who want to show their solidarity for the people in Puerto Rico,” Smith said.

“The idea for this event was to bring together a group of Pulse moms, survivors and first responders together, to be there for Puerto Rico in the same way they were with us last year. The Puerto Rican community, they grieved together with us last year, and they were disproportionately affected by the tragedy at Pulse,” Smith added. “This is our community’s way of paying it back to Puerto Rico and sending a message that we are still there for them.”

While King and Gillum were not part of the event, they released statements demanding more federal attention and aid for Puerto Rico.

“The people on the ground in Puerto Rico are reporting grave conditions and lack of food and water. Relief organizations are appealing to the public to donate and help with relief efforts because the need is that urgent,” King’s statement read.

“Meanwhile, President Trump and his DHS Secretary are claiming the U.S. government’s support in Puerto Rico has been ‘great,’ praising their own ability to address the Island’s urgent needs. The Trump Administration’s claims are undermining the relief organizations’ efforts to rally the public to donate and provide support for hurricane victims. We cannot let this administration‘s self-importance and arrogance thwart efforts of relief organizations and workers on the ground in Puerto Rico.”

Gillum’s statement read: “The president’s disregard for the lives and property of our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico is outrageous. This storm turned into a man-made disaster through the inaction and incompetence of this administration. These Americans need immediate relief from anyone and anywhere — and to date, our federal government hasn’t allowed that to happen. It’s past time for Trump to step up and allow the federal government, our military, and humanitarians provide all the relief possible.”

Airbnb extends disaster response for Hurricanes Irma, Maria

Airbnb, the nation’s largest vacation rental home marketing business, announced Friday it is extending its Disaster Response Program two more weeks in Florida to help with displaced evacuees and relief workers from Hurricane Irma and evacuees from Hurricane Maria.

The company and a few of its host properties have agreed to offer rent-free stays for the evacuees or relief workers, dating to the Sept. 10-11 Hurricane Irma that ravaged almost all of Florida, followed by Hurricane Maria which devastated the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. The program was to expire Friday but will continue through Oct. 12, Airbnb announced.

Airbnb made the decision in consultation with Florida disaster management officials, who determined the extension was helpful in facilitating continued housing for those who cannot yet return to their homes due to the impact of Hurricane Irma. The program is also available to emergency relief officials as well as Puerto Rico natives who have evacuated to Florida following Hurricane Maria.

To this point, more than 230 hosts have opted into the program to list their homes for free to those in need in response to Hurricane Irma, Airbnb reported.

Bill Nelson: Puerto Rico response must ramp up now or drastic measures coming

The situation in Hurricane Maria-ravaged Puerto Rico is so bleak that the military response needs to shift from talk to all-out action today or “drastic measures” will have to be taken, Florida’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson declared in Orlando Wednesday.

“This is a disaster of gargantuan proportions,” Nelson said.

Speaking at the Acacia Puerto Rican Center in Orlando, and surrounded by numerous local Central Florida Puerto Rican community and political leaders, Democrats, Republicans and independents, Nelson lashed out at President Donald Trump‘s response as far too slow, combined with “happy talk … it’s just not realistic.”

Military involvement in the relief efforts began ramping up Thursday with the appointment of Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan to take command of operations, and Trump also announced a temporary suspension of the Jones Act, a 1920 maritime law that limits shipments of goods to the island.

Nelson and several others speaking at Acacia Friday including Florida state Sen. Victor Torres, charged that Trump finally began acting due to strong, angry, and growing pressure. Now, Nelson said, the actual efforts must turn dramatically immediately, and he and others contended that only the military has the logistical experience, training, equipment, and manpower to tackle the problems of impassable roads, no power, no running water and no communication across mountainous terrain.

“If we do not see this changing in the next day, and today, then drastic measures are going to have to be taken,” Nelson said. “But I do believe there has been enough agitation expressed to the administration, and to the White House, and to the Defense Department, and to the National Security Council, and to the FAA, and to the Department of Homeland Security. I think there’s been enough agitation including from this senator and my colleague Sen. [Marco] Rubio that we will see action starting right now.”

Nelson repeatedly said that he and Rubio are of one mind on what is happening in Puerto Rico and what needs to be done.

The consequences are that people already are dying inland from lack of food, water and other essentials, others said.

Natalie Rossy and Michael Maldonado just evacuated from Puerto Rico and joined Nelson, Torres and the others Friday. Maldonado said he watched someone die while they waited overnight in an un-air-conditioned airport. Rossy said it’s happening elsewhere.

“Things are much worse than what you see on television,” Rossy said. “We cannot wait until government or military or FEMA takes a plan because people are dying. People are starving. We need food and water.

“Please, we need your help. People can’t wait. Right now we need to take action. We need help. We really need, Mr. President, your help. We are American citizens,” she added.

“The people in the mountains, they are dying. They need help,” Maldonado said.

Nelson suggested that Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló was reluctant to criticize the federal government’s response so far because he does not want to anger the administration.

Torres criticized Florida Gov. Rick Scott for doing a flyover of hard-hit areas in Puerto Rico Thursday and not visiting people affected, and then saying he awaited requests from Rosselló on how Florida can help.

A former Marine, Torres added, “I know what the Army, what the Armed Forces can do. I know the [Navy] Seabees can reconstruct roads, build bridges, do things that nobody can think of because they have the capability, the know-how.”

“No more talk. Things are getting worse by the day,” Torres said.

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