Biden visits Puerto Rico after Hurricane Fiona

Fiona caused catastrophic flooding, destroyed roads and bridges, and triggered more than 100 landslides when it hit Puerto Rico last month.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden vowed to “rebuild everything” after arriving in Puerto Rico on Monday to survey the damage from Hurricane Fiona as tens of thousands of people are left without power two weeks after the storm hit.

“I’m committed to this island,” he said after receiving a briefing from local officials, acknowledging that Fiona was just the latest in a string of disasters that have plagued the US territory in recent years.

“Puerto Ricans are a strong people,” Biden said. “But still you had to endure so much and more than necessary, and you didn’t get help in time.”

Hurricane Fiona has disrupted power to 3.2 million people on US territory, 44% of whom live below the poverty line.

RELATED: Puerto Ricans await help, worry about post-hurricane recovery

“What happened with this hurricane is that even though it was Category 1, it was like Category 4 in terms of water,” Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi told Biden.

Power has been restored to about 90% of the island’s 1.47 million customers, but more than 137,000 others, mostly in the hard-hit areas of Puerto Rico’s southern and western regions, continue fighting in the dark. Another 66,000 customers are without water.

RELATED: Biden Visits Florida Amid Hurricane Ian’s Deadly Effects

The weather remained ominous as Biden spoke. Thunder rumbled and lightning flashed in the distance.

“I don’t want the headline to be ‘Biden Brings Storm to Puerto Rico,'” he joked. “So I might have to cut that down a bit.”

Biden has promised the US government will not abandon Puerto Rico as it begins rebuilding, five years after the stronger Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.

As he left the White House Monday morning, the president said he was leaving in part because the people there “hadn’t been taken care of very well” and were “trying damn to catch up with the last hurricane.”

Biden announced that the government would provide $60 million by last year Bipartisan Infrastructure Act to help Puerto Rico shore up levees, strengthen flood defense walls, and create a new flood warning system so the island is better prepared for future storms.

Florida is cleaning up after Hurricane Ian swept across the state last week, killing more than 60 people, decimating some coastal communities and flooding others. Biden plans to visit Florida on Wednesday to assess the damage.

“In times like these, our nation comes together, puts aside our political differences, and gets to work,” Biden said.

On Monday, the President was joined in Puerto Rico by First Lady Jill Biden and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell. They landed in Ponce, a town on the south coast where most of the storm damage occurs.

“He’s going to the hardest-hit area of ​​Puerto Rico, and it’s an area that no president has ever gone to,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One.

Fiona caused catastrophic flooding, destroyed roads and bridges, and triggered more than 100 landslides when it struck Puerto Rico on September 18. At least two people died after being swept away by floods and several others were killed in accidents related to the use of candles or generator during the island-wide blackout.

Government officials have estimated the damage at around $3 billion but warn the cost could increase significantly as the evaluations progress.

Some people in Puerto Rico wondered if Biden’s visit would make a difference, recalling President Donald Trump visiting after Hurricane Maria in 2017 as a stronger Category 4 storm, bringing rolls of paper towels in a crowd into one crowd that upset many.

“We know there may have been some problems in the previous administration,” Criswell said Monday. “We are focused on giving them the support they need.”

Criswell, who said FEMA personnel were dispatched to the island before the storm and will remain there to help with recovery, visited Puerto Rico shortly after Fiona struck.

“They finally feel like this government cares about them and that they will be there for them to support them in this response and recovery effort,” she said.

In some parts of the island there is a deep-rooted skepticism that anything will change.

Manuel Veguilla, a 63-year-old retired mechanic who lives in a remote community in the hard-hit northern mountain town of Caguas, said he didn’t expect his life to improve after Fiona cut his neighborhood off from the effects no help for a week.

“They always offer the kids the lollipop,” he said, referring to Biden’s visit. “But in the end the result is always the same. Aid goes to those who have the most.”

Biden recently told Pierluisi that he approved 100 percent federal funding for a month for debris clearance, search and rescue efforts, restoration of power and water, shelter and food.

The island’s lack of electrical power led to the temporary closure of businesses, including gas stations and grocery stores, as fuel supplies ran out due to heavy use of generators. As a result, many cheered the Biden administration’s decision to temporarily waive a federal law to allow a British Petroleum ship to deliver 300,000 barrels of diesel.

Many have also begun calling for Puerto Rico to be completely exempt from the law, known as the Jones Act, which requires that all goods shipped to Puerto Rico must be on board a US-built vessel, owned and crewed by US citizens and flying the US flag. This drives up costs for an island that already imports 85% of its food.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also said Puerto Ricans will not be forgotten.

Rubio said the island “appears to be in a better position to respond this time” as personnel and supplies were deployed ahead of the storm’s arrival and part of Puerto Rico’s power grid had been rebuilt after Hurricane Maria.

“We will do everything we can, which we have always done, to help Puerto Rico recover now from yet another devastating storm,” Rubio said on CNN’s State of the Union. Biden visits Puerto Rico after Hurricane Fiona

Laura Coffey

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