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Scott says Florida stands ready to help Puerto Rico, but some see a weak effort so far

Florida Gov. Rick Scott flies in a helicopter on Thursday with Gov. Ricardo Rossello of Puerto Rico during Scott's visit to the island after Hurricane Maria. [Florida Governor's Office]

Florida Gov. Rick Scott flies in a helicopter on Thursday with Gov. Ricardo Rossello of Puerto Rico during Scott's visit to the island after Hurricane Maria. [Florida Governor's Office]

WASHINGTON — A day after he saw Hurricane Maria's terrible toll on Puerto Rico, Gov. Rick Scott told President Trump about it over lunch at the White House Friday as frustration mounted over the official response.

Scott's six-hour tour Thursday was dismissed as a photo opportunity by state Sen. Victor Torres, a Democrat whose Orlando-area district will soon welcome tens of thousands of hurricane evacuees.

"Talk is cheap," said Torres, who finds Scott's response long on platitudes and skimpy on specifics. "I don't have the power. If I was the governor, I would move, I would make things happen. We need to step up our game."

RELATED: Wave of Puerto Rican evacuees may shift Florida landscape

Torres, a former Marine and New York City police officer, said that if Scott had access to a state aircraft to fly to Puerto Rico, he should have packed the plane with relief supplies.

Scott flew to Puerto Rico on a jet owned by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The group included FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen, Florida National Guard Adjutant General Major General Michael Calhoun and Scott's new interim disaster preparedness director, Wes Maul, 29, just two days on the job.

"This is not a time for politics," Scott said Friday on the White House lawn, where he ditched his familiar Navy ball cap for a dress suit. "Remember, my job is to be responsive to what the governor of Puerto Rico wants. He's going through an unbelievable crisis and so as he finds his needs, I will do everything I can."

Scott, the U.S. governor who appears to have the most direct access to the president, visited the ravaged island Thursday at the invitation, he said, of Gov. Ricardo Rossello.

After Scott's trip, his office released four photos of the governor, flying in a chopper with Rossello and shaking hands with National Guard troops. And on his Twitter feed, Scott showed photos of himself riding in the helicopter.

Scott's office late Friday said it is coordinating sending 1,500 FDLE officers to Puerto Rico and that fish and wildlife equipment would be sent to Puerto Rico "as needed." The state is seeking licensed truck drivers, the office said, and is arranging for kidney dialysis patients to be housed at Florida International University in Miami.

Relief is primarily a federal responsibility, but Scott has repeatedly said: "Tell me what your needs are and I will do everything I can" to help Puerto Rico.

Scott said he also told Gov. Rossello that he would help cut red tape in Washington.

"I have good relationships with Cabinet members and the Trump administration," Scott said he told the island's leader.

Scott said the state will offer less expensive in-state tuition to Puerto Rican college students, that counties are sending bilingual police officers to Puerto Rico, and he is talking to seaports about the need to move containers.

The Department of Education will be asked to set aside class-size restrictions and to postpone the next scheduled student head count from October to January to include the arriving children from Puerto Rico.

That will mean more money for county schools for the costs of educating them next year.

Florida plays a unique dual role, promising to send people and resources to Puerto Rico while also bracing for an influx of what local officials say could be as many as 100,000 displaced residents.

"We'll work with our school districts, work with our airports and work with everybody," Scott said. "We'll be able to figure this out."

The state's response to the crisis increasingly carries a political dimension, which is in part a reflection of reality.

Scott is widely expected to run for the U.S. Senate next year against Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat who has been critical of the federal response to the disaster.

Even amid so much desperation and heartbreak in Puerto Rico, it's not lost on anyone in politics that hurricane evacuees who move to Florida will register to vote and that Puerto Rican voters strongly identify with the Democratic Party.

A dozen state legislators, all Democrats, sent Scott a letter Friday and urged him to immediately set up one-stop recovery centers for housing, job training and job placement, access to Medicaid and food stamps, unemployment benefits, public school enrollment and information about FEMA and local non-profit groups.

"We believe it is vital that the state respond proactively to ease their transition and reduce the mental and financial strain this process is sure to inflict on many families," they wrote. "These relief centers could be housed on existing state properties, such as Florida National Guard armories or on state fairgrounds, in at least four counties where the greatest influx of citizens are expected to occur."

Those counties, they said, are Miami-Dade, Broward, Orange and Osceola.

Scott's office had no immediate response.

Speaking to reporters in Sanford after his return from Puerto Rico, he said it is much harder to speed relief to Puerto Rico because it is an island. But he said Florida is uniquely positioned to help.

On Wednesday, he met with local volunteers and Osceola County elected officials in Kissimmee, an Orlando suburb that's home to a large and growing Puerto Rican community.

The backdrop for Scott's appearance was a warehouse filled with bottled water, food and first aid kits. But those relief supplies were still in that warehouse Friday, Osceola County Commissioner Viviana Janer said.

She cited complications with airline flights to the island and said officials are considering sending the materials by boat instead.

"As soon as we get clearance to move it, we will," Janer said.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com and follow @stevebousquet.

Scott says Florida stands ready to help Puerto Rico, but some see a weak effort so far 09/29/17 [Last modified: Friday, September 29, 2017 8:10pm]
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