Standing alongside Puerto Rican community leaders in Miami on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said he didn't want to talk politics on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria's landfall in Puerto Rico.
But that wish gradually gave way as the Democrat from Florida condemned President Donald Trump for disputing the death toll from the hurricane and called on the federal government to do more to rebuild the island.
Nelson met with the leaders at the Borinquen Health Care Center in Miami to discuss recovery in the year since Hurricane Maria ravaged the island. He listed ways the island can once again become "the crown jewel of the Caribbean."
"How about rebuilding the electrical grid so it's not all dependent on the generating plant down in Ponce," he said, standing next to state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez and former Miami-Dade mayor Alex Pinellas. "If we plan ahead with solar, then there will be adequate backups when the next hurricane comes."
Nelson—who also discussed accusations against the U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh—criticized Congress for not creating more tax incentives for businesses to move to Puerto Rico and boost its economy. The tax bill passed in Congress last year also fails to increase the Child Income Tax Credit in Puerto Rico, unlike everywhere else in the mainland U.S., Nelson said.
His comments came as much of the island continues to recover from the more than $1 billion in damages caused by the storm. Although power has been restored almost everywhere, outages are common and the electricity system is obsolete. Blue tarps remain on many roofs of houses, and damaged businesses have yet to reopen.
Now, there are concerns about water contamination after the island's water authority has failed to adequately test tap water for bacteria and contaminants like lead.
President Donald Trump has touted the federal response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and accused his opponents for inflating the death toll of nearly 3,000 people.
Nelson on Thursday rebuked Trump and Federal Emergency Mangement Agency Director Brock Long, who has stood by the president's claims about the death toll.
"What about the people that were injured, could not get medical care but were out helping people in dirty water survive and then [died] as a result of the infections that set in? That's as a result of the Hurricane," he said. "What about the senior citizens that desperately needed air conditioning and because of no electricity didn't have it?"
Nelson is seeking reelection in November against Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who broke with Trump's comments about the death toll. Both candidates are trying to win the vote of Puerto Ricans who have fled to Florida after the storm.
Scott has taken several trips to the island in the last year, including a recent one for the anniversary. Nelson said he doesn't plan to visit Puerto Rico again before the midterm election in two months. But he noted his efforts to help the island both before and after the Hurricane.
And Puerto Rican community leaders who met with him on Thursday commended his committment.
Luis De Rosa, the president of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of South Florida, said Nelson has been a "great friend" to the Puerto Rican community.
Eva Perez, the chairwoman of the Borinquen Health Care Center's board, added that there's only so much the senator can do to help the island's recovery.
"I don't think he can snap his fingers and get things done," she said. "But I know he's been working ever since we had this terrible hurricane in Puerto Rico."
In addition to discussing Puerto Rico, Nelson said there should be an investigation into an accusation that the Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford while they were both in high school. Kavanaugh denies the allegation.
Nelson said he'll likely announce next week whether he will vote to confirm Kavanaugh. The senator has asked to meet with Kavanaugh five times to no avail, he said.