TALLAHASSEE, Fla. --- Following Hurricane Dorian’s widespread devastation in the Bahamas, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Sen. Rick Scott are asking President Donald Trump to make it easier for Bahamian storm victims with families in Florida to relocate while the islands undergo what could be a massive and long-term rebuilding effort.
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In a letter Wednesday to Trump, the Republican senators asked the president “to waive, or otherwise suspend, certain visa requirements for affected citizens of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas who have relatives in the United States with whom they can reside as they begin the process of rebuilding their lives and their country.”
Rubio and Scott sought Trump’s aid after Dorian eviscerated Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands with winds in excess of 185 mph, splintering homes, businesses and health-care facilities and leaving roads, airports and marinas in tatters and flooded, virtually cut off from assistance.
While Dorian spared the Florida Atlantic coast, the Bahamas, with close geographic and cultural ties to Florida, sustained prolonged winds and rain, with initial reports indicating that “thousands of homes have been destroyed and the basic infrastructure of many communities simply no longer exists,” Rubio and Scott wrote in the letter.
Many government services “are not functioning in the affected areas at this time,” the senators noted.
“As Americans, and others throughout our hemisphere and across the globe, work to provide aid and assistance for the many needs of the Bahamian people at this time, perhaps one of the most basic yet meaningful steps our government can take immediately is to ensure that those who have lost everything, including family members in some instances, are provided the opportunity for shelter and reunification with family in the United States,” the Republicans wrote.
State Rep. Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat whose father’s family lives in the Bahamas, also called on Trump to allow people from the island to relocate to Florida.
In an interview Wednesday with The News Service of Florida, Jones praised the efforts of Rubio and Scott, as well as those of Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat who also has close family ties to the Bahamas.
“Setting politics aside, I’m appreciative of them doing this,” Jones said, referring to Rubio and Scott. “This is a human rights issue. I’m happy to see that we are working for once together. … I’m thankful that (Washington) D.C. is engaged in this.”
Jones, who has posted heart-wrenching videos on social media of Dorian’s landfall and aftermath on the island, said that, two days after the slow-moving storm wreaked havoc in the Bahamas, “it’s all search-and-rescue mode right now, and connecting.”
With cell phone towers out and limited or no power, people are still trying to connect with their families, Jones said.
“Right now, the biggest thing for the Bahamian families over here, they’re asking can my family member come here. That’s why we’re asking for the suspension of visas, because it puts us in the position of not having to deal with the red tape and we can get those people to safety as soon as possible,” he said.
The devastation wrought by Dorian is “the greatest national crisis in our country’s history,” according to Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis.
The official death toll Wednesday was seven (and later revised to 20), but Minnis said he expected that number to rise as rescue workers began to conduct searches in the hardest-hit areas.
Some experts have predicted it will take years for the island chain to recover from the disaster, while others fear that the unique character of the Abacos --- a popular destination for boaters from Riviera Beach and other parts of Southeast Florida --- may be permanently erased.
“It’s going to be a long time to even get back to some type of normalcy,” Jones said.
While breathing a sigh of relief after Dorian avoided a direct hit to the Sunshine State, Floridians have begun relief efforts to deliver much-needed items to the Bahamas.
“The biggest thing is water and tents. They need portable toilets. They need baby diapers. They need diapers for seniors. Those are the main things the prime minister is asking for,” Jones said.
Tallahassee lobbyist David Ramba told the News Service he has put his plane on standby, awaiting the reopening of airports in the Bahamas.
“We want to offer the same help to people in the Bahamas that we would for any neighbor,” Ramba said.