Republican panel defends Puerto Rico response as ‘best ever’

Johnny Mendez, Jenniffer Gonzalez-Coclon, Bob Cortes, Jose Fuentes, Gary Berrios

Allowing that the massive damage of Hurricane Maria was overwhelming and logistics of aid to an island complicated everything, a panel of Puerto Rican and Florida leaders told the Republican Sunshine Summit Friday that the federal response was in many ways the best the island has ever seen.

The panel of three Puerto Rican officials and Florida state Rep. Bob Cortes of Altamonte Springs defended both the responses from President Donald Trump’s and Florida Gov. Rick Scott‘s administrations against attacks that they were slow and inadequate, leaving Puerto Ricans suffering for the better part of a year, and leaving tens of thousands still living as refugees in Florida.

“This is the first time ever Puerto Rico got all federal agencies on site, before, during and after both hurricanes, said Puerto Rico Congresswoman Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon.

“The largest disaster air mission in the history of the United States,” former Puerto Rico Attorney General Jose Fuentes declared.

Their comments came while a group of Puerto Rico hurricane refugees sat in a tent city, protesting the lack of housing and responses, a few hundred yards away from the Gaylord Palms Resort in Kissimmee, which hosted the Republican Party of Florida’s 2nd Sunshine Summit. There was no mention of them, nor of the pending housing crisis that many of the thousands of migrants will face when federal housing vouchers expire this weekend.

Instead, they argued that the 180-day relief to Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Irma and Maria amounted to $10 billion, compared with the $5 billion that went to Texas after Hurricane Harvey, and the $2.5 billion that went to Florida after Hurricane Irma.

That included 75 million liters of water and 64 million meals, they said. And they said the responses not only were the best the island has ever experienced from the federal government, but in some ways the largest such effort the United States has ever undertaken.

They also hailed Florida efforts led by Scott.

Cortes summarized many of the efforts Scott pursued, many of which Cortes suggested, including opening Florida schools to automatic student transfers from Puerto Rico, making the state a staging center for relief aid, opening welcome centers at the Miami and Orlando airports, “and welcoming people with open arms.”

Cortes said that led to close partnerships between Scott’s administration and Puerto Rico officials.

As a result, the two governments, he said, have “formed a bond that is inseparable. We work together for the good of both Puerto Rico and Florida.”

Fuentes, Gonzalez-Colon and Puerto Rico Speaker of the House Johnny Mendez acknowledged that some responses may have appeared slow and that some people still are suffering, but said the Trump administration was not to be blamed. The Trump administration, they insisted, provided more and more comprehensive relief than the island has ever before seen.

Fuentes blamed the damage and logistics, with ports and airports all closed and much of the island difficult to access.

“So yes, do we all wish that it would have been quicker? Yes. But the reality is that the logistics hampered the effort. So we have to learn from the experience and make sure the next time they have the resources there on the island so that they can help out,” Fuentes said.

“The response, given the circumstances, was very good,” he added. “But you know, Democrats like to talk, talk, talk, talk, and hate facts.”

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 [email protected].


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