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Rep. Darren Soto discusses the damage caused by Hurricane Ian and recovery efforts

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Florida is trying to cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, and not just in coastal communities. Some parts of central Florida received more than 15 inches of rain that flooded homes and roadways. In Osceola County, home to a large Puerto Rican community, Ian felt like a second blow, coming just days after another hurricane did major damage in Puerto Rico. Congressman Darren Soto represents that area of Florida and joins us now.

Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Soto.

DARREN SOTO: It's my honor. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Tell us what you've seen. And what tears at you the most?

SOTO: Well, it's a double punch to the Puerto Rican community, both the diaspora and our brothers and sisters on the island. I was down in Puerto Rico on Sunday and saw severe flooding damage in the south part of the island. Although things have been much better than Maria. We see power getting back to about 90%, along with water access in the south part of the island, where there is a lot of flooding. Well, right here at home - I flew back Sunday night, and we sustained a Category 4 hurricane hitting southwest Florida. It was about a Category 1 once it got to central Florida, where we sustained a lot of flooding, some wind damage, and there's still some power outages. We greet FEMA administrator Criswell today in the district.

SIMON: What do you see in your district? What are the greatest - what's the greatest damage? What are the greatest needs? And is relief coming in?

SOTO: Flooding is definitely the biggest damage. We saw areas of the northern Everglades, like Mill Slough and Shingle Creek flood over - also areas of east Orange County as well, from the Little Econlockhatchee. So Mother Nature really poured a lot of water on us and some of that is still standing. The good news is President Biden has met all of our requests from both debris removal to individual assistance and assistance to local governments. Power has been coming back on in a steady clip. And we expect about 90% of customers and most utilities to have power by Sunday.

The big issue will be food, clothing, water, personal products, things like that for folks who find themselves in our local shelters. Those have been at the hundreds, thank God, rather than the thousands. But it could increase over the next few days, should there be some folks without power.

SIMON: Congressman, so to help us understand what I'll, I'm afraid, colloquially refer to as the double punch a lot of your constituents received...

SOTO: Absolutely.

SIMON: ...Families who've moved from Puerto Rico after Maria, and now there's Fiona and Ian in just a few days' time.

SOTO: Absolutely. Florida's home to the largest diaspora of Puerto Ricans in the nation, including my heritage. And about half of us live in central Florida, clustered particularly in my home county of Osceola and Kissimmee. We had about 200,000 folks leave after Hurricane Maria. About 50,000-plus stayed. So a lot of them were used to the response from Hurricane Maria, which was notoriously terrible, where power was out for seven, eight months in certain areas where we saw FEMA personnel not arrive nearly on time. It took weeks. And we saw the highest death toll of a modern natural disaster, nearly 3,000 folks. So the ghosts of Hurricane Maria loom large as Fiona and Ian hit both the island and the diaspora.

The good news is we've seen the response be markedly improved. And the amount of folks that we lost was, though tragic, far less. Last check I saw 16-plus folks in Puerto Rico who passed away, which is terrible, obviously, as well as 21 in Florida. But you see we're saving thousands of lives that otherwise perished under Hurricane Maria. So we know these are resilient areas. We know with the right federal support, we will build back more resiliently. And I already saw, compared to Hurricane Irma, many public buildings and a lot of rebuilt buildings from that era five years ago really withstand the storm. So resiliency does work when it's employed.

SIMON: Congressman, I wonder if you've met one or two people who have particularly touched you that you can share with us over these past few days.

SOTO: Absolutely. I toured all the emergency operations centers yesterday and talking to first responders who had been working literally for 72 hours straight, with a few naps, including our Osceola sheriff, who had been up for three days. So that was obviously a big impact. Talking to families whose homes were still flooded really pulls the heartstrings, and, of course, hearing about children who are still in the shelters right now. All those things certainly weigh heavily on our heart. But help is on the way and in many cases is already here. So we know hurricanes in central Florida. We're going to continue to come together to lift up even the most vulnerable in our community.

SIMON: Representative Darren Soto of Florida.

Thanks so much for being with us.

SOTO: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.