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.”