TAMPA —The mayor of Isabela, Puerto Rico, arrived in Florida at 4 a.m. and took an Uber from Orlando. He needed to get to Tampa with two important messages.
One, to relay his constituents’ thanks to Tampa volunteers who threw his town a lifeline after a Category 5 hurricane smashed into his city. And two, Isabela’s beaches, coral reefs, underwater caves and forest trails are open for tourists.
"We’re open for business, especially tourism," Carlos Delgado Altieri said.
Tampa had its own tourism travails, Buckhorn said. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill wasn’t mentioned but was surely on his mind.
"You got to just keep repeating it and telling it to everybody," Buckhorn said.
Buckhorn offered to help connect Delgado Altieri with his former chief of staff, Santiago Corrado at Visit Tampa Bay, to help with luring tourists back to the city on the northwestern tip of the Caribbean island.
But the bulk of the 30-minute conversation in the mayor’s conference room in front of a bank of television cameras focused on Isabela’s gratitude for Tampa’s help.
Delgado Altieri said the three tons of food, water and supplies organized and shipped from Tampa helped his region of about 46,000 recover from the leveling of 1,800 buildings and devastating conditions.
Six months after the hurricane, only 85 percent of his city’s residents have electricity, Delgado Altieri said.
Without Tampa’s help, it would have been much worse, Delgado Altieri said.
"This help for our people is very significant," he said.
After Hurricane Maria slammed into the American territory in September, Puerto Rico has struggled to regain its balance. Less than 70 percent of the island’s population has power and the rates of suicide have spiked. More than 200,000 people have left the island, many of them relocating to Orlando and Tampa.
The two mayors shared frustrations over the work of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Buckhorn, a Democrat, took the opportunity to assure Delgado Altieri that his city had Puerto Rico’s back.
"You are a part of America and we don’t forget that. There may be some in Washington who do," Buckhorn said.
Puerto Rico’s slow recovery from Maria has become politics in Florida, where tens of thousands of island residents already had immigrated in recent years. Puerto Ricans make up the biggest slice of Hispanic residents in the Tampa Bay area.
Buckhorn was careful to say that his administration played a supporting role in the crisis. Most of the credit, he said, belonged to volunteers.
Retired U.S Air Force Col. Evelio "E.J." Otero Jr., a native of the island, organized the massive Tampa effort, soliciting warehouse space and donations and coordinating relief shipments. The last container arrived Wednesday, Delgado Altieri said.
The effort was successful, Otero said, because organizers focused on getting aid directly to mayors in Puerto Rico.
Buckhorn, who plans to visit Puerto Rico soon, said the rest of the country can’t lose focus on the island’s plight.
"Puerto Rico is going to struggle for a long time to come," Buckhorn said. "We do not have a choice and we cannot forget that."