Federal and state comprehensive, strategic plans are desperately needed to coordinate services for Hurricane Maria evacuees from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands so that they can best find the services wherever they’re available in Florida, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said Tuesday.
Jacobs warned that someone needs to be coordinating where tens of thousands of island evacuees should consider going, because of the availability of housing, health care, education, and other services can be provided for them, or they’re all going to wind up in the same places, where there may be limited services available while the rest of the state goes untapped.
“We’re frustrated. I’m frustrated. I think everyone is frustrated,” Jacobs said.
“What we need to be mindful of is there is no one city or county or even region that can handle all the evacuees and provide them the resources and the services that they need,” she said. “This is something we have communicated on numerous occasions to the state.”
Her declaration at the Orange County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday came after reports through Commissioner Betsy VanderLey, that the biggest charity health care clinic organizations in the county, Shepherd’s Hope and Grace Medical Home, were on the verge of being overwhelmed, and the annual budget for Orange County’s Primary Care Access Network could be burned up in two months just attending to evacuees’ health care needs.
VanderLey wanted a discussion of health care services, but Jacobs insisted the discussion needed to be far bigger.
Already more than 40,000 people have arrived at Orlando International Airport from the islands, most fleeing total devastation and looking for a place to be able to live, at least temporarily until their homes are inhabitable again, and another 126,000 are expected in the next couple of months, Jacobs said.
“What you’re raising here is a symptom of a much bigger problem right this minute: That is what we need for evacuees coming to Florida and also to around the country, but a very large number are coming to Florida, and a very large number are coming to Central Florida, a really comprehensive, well-thought-out strategy, to make sure that evacuees, U.S. citizens that arrive here from Puerto Rico, have the resources that they need from housing, to access to transportation, to educational capacity in our schools, to the medical assistance that they need,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs frustration comes three weeks after she deferred to the state and federal emergency management agencies, rather than set up a coordination of services at the local level, as had been requested by three Orange commissioners, Emily Bonilla, Jennifer Thompson, and Pete Clarke. That has drawn backlash criticism from several area leaders in the Puerto Rican community who said Jacobs was punting responsibility. But she had argued then that only the state and federal agencies could coordinate statewide as needed to be done, and anything Orange County or any other local government would try to do might only get in the way.
But that coordination never came, she said.
“Where I’ve grown frustrated, and I know Osceola County is growing frustrated as well, is we still do not have a strategic plan from either FEMA or the state Department of Emergency Management,” she said.
Florida Department of Emergency Management Communications Director Alberto Moscoso responded that the state was working closely with FEMA on assistance now including hotel vouches, but that disaster survivor sheltering “is a local initiative.”
“It is important to note that FEMA provides disaster survivor housing programs, while disaster survivor sheltering is a local initiative,” he said. “However, the state proactively and aggressively sought and secured a host state agreement to provide a 100 percent reimbursement mechanism for our community sheltering efforts. Currently, volunteer organizations, working through state coordinated airport relief centers, are providing hotel vouchers to evacuees. In addition, DEM is working with our Federal and local partners to explore and consider all available solutions with regards to housing Hurricane Maria survivors.”
Jacobs said she and leaders in Osceola and Seminole counties are preparing a jointly-signed letter to state and federal authorities, requesting a comprehensive plan, and also asking them to come to Central Florida for a meeting to better coordinate the direction of evacuees and services.
“This is a problem bigger than we can solve,” she said.