Bill Nelson condemned Gov. Rick Scott as more than a thousand Puerto Rican survivors of Hurricane Maria could end up homeless in the coming days.
Many survivors of the storm are living in the U.S., including here in Florida, after their homes were destroyed.
Those who lost their homes were able to qualify for Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA), a program operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The TSA program pays for temporary lodgings, such as hotels, and attempts to find permanent homes for those affected by the storm. The agency has spent $432 million on lodging, according to an article by Newsweek.
However, the program helping Puerto Ricans is set to expire Saturday after a previous 60-day extension was granted. Nelson and other Democrats signed on to a request to FEMA for a new 60-day extension. However, those efforts seem to have failed.
Nelson noted senators also asked FEMA to activate the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP). Similar efforts were made for victims of Hurricane Katrina back in 2005.
“All FEMA has to do is activate the existing law, just like they did for Katrina victims in New Orleans,” Nelson said at a news conference Saturday. But according to Nelson, that request was also rejected.
Nelson said he also introduced measures in the Senate to extend aid to the survivors, but they were blocked by Republicans.
However, in a statement to Florida Politics, the Rick Scott campaign rebutted Nelson’s efforts, calling him “all talk and no action.”
Scott added, “Trying to earn political points on a piece of legislation that never left the ground is typical of a career politician like Bill Nelson. Bill Nelson has had nearly half a century to learn how to solve problems at the federal level, but instead, the only thing he has mastered is how to file a bill without putting in the work to secure its passage.”
Nevertheless, as it stands, families impacted by the storm must either figure out how to pay for their temporary housing on their own, find another way to stay here in the U.S., or return to an island that has still not fully recovered from Hurricane Maria.
Part of the issue is that Puerto Rico was facing problems long before the storm. “Puerto Rico’s current condition was not solely caused by Maria,” noted state Rep. Robert Asencio, who also spoke at Saturday’s news conference.
Asencio and state Sen. Victor Torres recounted a recent visit to the island, where they witnessed several areas still recovering from the storm more than nine months later.
The duo said they spoke to Puerto Rican mayors who warned they are not able to accommodate the influx of survivors returning to the island. “They said, ‘We cannot take on the families who return. We don’t have the housing,'” recalled Torres.
Criticism then turned toward the Rick Scott administration for failing to make up for the assistance shortfall created by the TSA expiration.
“They have not taken this issue seriously,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of the Scott administration.
“Governor Rick Scott has refused to take any action to support these evacuees and give them a long-term solution to housing.”
He called on Gov. Scott to allocate resources to help those Puerto Ricans who face the loss of shelter due to the expiration of TSA.
However, Scott put the blame squarely on the federal government. “We have continued to do all we can at the state level to find real solutions for Puerto Rican families.”
He also promised, “to continue to fight for Puerto Rican families both here in Florida and on the island.” His office issued a release directing those affected by TSA’s expiration to other resources available to them.
Nelson, who is being challenged by Scott in 2018 for his U.S. Senate seat, sees this as a winning political issue, however. He urged Puerto Rican voters to remember it come November.
“They know how they’ve been treated by President Trump. They remember the images of President Trump throwing paper towels into the crowd as his way of serving the people who were hurting at that time.”
He added, “At the end of the day, what we want to make sure is that our Puerto Rican friends understand that elections have consequences.”