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In visit to Puerto Rico, Biden says he’s ‘determined to help’ recovery after Hurricane Fiona

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 10/4/2022 Syra Ortiz-Blanes, Alex Roarty, Miami Herald
On Sept. 20, 2022, Antonio Perez Miranda walks out of his house through the mud left by the river Rio de la Plata overflowing in the San Jose de Toa Baja caused by Hurricane Fiona that passed by Puerto Rico on Monday, Sept. 18. © Pedro Portal/El Nuevo Herald/TNS On Sept. 20, 2022, Antonio Perez Miranda walks out of his house through the mud left by the river Rio de la Plata overflowing in the San Jose de Toa Baja caused by Hurricane Fiona that passed by Puerto Rico on Monday, Sept. 18.

President Joe Biden declared in Puerto Rico on Monday that his administration is committed to helping the island recover from Hurricane Fiona and other disasters, announcing more than $60 million federal investment in flood management that he said was only a small piece of the overall assistance he is ready to provide the territory.

”I’m determined to help Puerto Rico build faster than in the past and stronger and better prepared for the future,” said Biden, who arrived at a port in the city of Ponce as thunder and lightning set in amid a sweltering day.

The funds are for projects such as creating a new flood warning system and fortifying flood walls and levees, said the president, who was also expected to meet residents and prepare bags filled with food and relief during his short time on the island.

The president and first lady Jill Biden landed at the Mercedita International Airport in Ponce, the largest city in the island’s southern region, which experienced a series of devastating earthquakes two years ago and was hard hit by Fiona’s floods last month.

During a 15-minute speech, Biden recognized the string of natural disasters Puerto Rico has faced in recent years, including 2017 Hurricane Maria, which killed thousands and left residents grappling with difficult living conditions.

“Yet somehow the people of Puerto Rico keep getting back up with resilience and determination,” Biden said. “Quite frankly, it’s pretty extraordinary when you look at it from afar.”

Biden also mentioned Puerto Rico’s vulnerable power grid, which has blackouts even when there are no emergencies, and said his administration was “particularly focused” on the issue.

The president also reflected on what he described as a long-standing personal relationship with the territory, saying his home state of Delaware has a large share of Puerto Rican residents.

“I was sort of raised in the Puerto Rican community at home, politically,” the president said.

Among those in attendance during Biden’s remarks were Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, municipal mayors and executive agency heads. Federal officials, including Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González and longtime New York Rep. Nydia Velázquez, also came.

While introducing Biden, Pierluisi said the president is committed to the island and said he had briefed Biden on how the recovery from Fiona is going.

The governor added that he had requested that the president amend the major disaster declaration to provide “100% funding for debris removal, emergency protective measures, and direct federal assistance” for another six months.

“My asks to you, Mr. President, are straightforward. We want to be treated in the same way as our fellow Americans in the states in times of need,” said the island’s top official.

Hurricane Fiona’s Damage

Fiona, a Category 1 hurricane when it hit the island, dumped torrential rainfall across Puerto Rico and as much as 25 inches of rain in some parts of the interior and southeast. It also caused landslides that cut off communities and roads, knocked out the island’s electric system and left millions without water and power. Rivers across the island experienced major flooding, inundating nearby communities. In the town of Salinas alone, where the mayor’s assistant said about 3,000 houses suffered damage, over 400 rescues took place.

The Puerto Rico Department of Health has announced that at least 25 deaths on the island are related to the hurricane, although several are still under investigation.

As of Monday night, private power utility operator LUMA energy said 94% of its nearly 1.5 million clients had electricity again. However, power restoration has been slower in the hard hit Ponce and Mayagüez regions. The company said it estimated it would restore power to 90% of clients in those areas between Tuesday and Thursday.

Residents in some communities told the Miami Herald they experienced worse flooding during Fiona than during 2017 Hurricane Maria, which killed thousands, devastated critical infrastructure, left an estimated $90 billion in damage, and left some residents without power for a year.

Fiona is the latest setback to the recovery of Puerto Rico, which is still reeling from recent earthquakes and storms as it manages the COVID-19 pandemic, a steep population decline and a recent exit from a years-long bankruptcy.

Biden and Puerto Rico

Biden has publicly positioned himself as an advocate for the island, which has seen hundreds of thousands of its residents move to the U.S. mainland in the past decade. While on the campaign trail, he unveiled a Puerto Rico recovery plan, which included revamping the island’s power grid and improving education and healthcare in Puerto Rico. He also visited Central Florida, the heart of the Puerto Rican community in the state.

“If you think about where the president is going today, he’s going to the almost the hardest hit area of Puerto Rico, and it is an area that presidents have not gone to before,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday aboard Air Force One en route to the island. “And I think that shows the president and the first lady’s commitment to the people of Puerto Rico, to be able to go there to an area where you know, people have lost almost everything.”

During Biden’s first months in office, his administration announced and released billions of dollars in housing, disaster recovery and education funds for Puerto Rico and set up a White House task force dedicated to the island.

After Fiona, Biden approved a major-disaster declaration for Puerto Rico, making funding available for residents in 55 municipalities to apply for relief assistance for housing repairs and other needs.

The federal government was criticized on the island for not initially including every town that suffered damage during Fiona. It later amended the declaration, including residents in all 78 towns so they can apply to FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program.

The president announced two weeks ago that for one month, the federal government would fund 100% of recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, which includes food, shelter, debris removal, and the restoration of electricity and water services.

Biden’s trip marks the first official visit from a sitting U.S. president since former President Donald Trump came to the island in October 2017.

Despite Trump’s visit only lasting four hours, he sparked island-wide outrage when he threw several paper towel rolls into a crowd only weeks after Hurricane Maria had left many Puerto Ricans suffering without homes or basic services. Both the federal and island governments are widely blamed on the island for failing to respond effectively and quickly to the storm.

In 2011, Barack Obama became the first president to visit the island in 50 years when he traveled to San Juan for another hours-long visit.

Biden will visit Florida on Wednesday, a week after Category 4 Hurricane Ian killed about 100 people, according to county and state officials, and devastated Gulf cities and towns like Fort Myers, Cape Coral and Sanibel Island. He acknowledged that many Puerto Ricans have loved ones in Florida.

“Your hearts are with them right now,” he said, “and their hearts are with you.”

Kimberly Torres, a 21-year-old restaurant worker from Ponce, said that Fiona had flooded her neighborhood’s street and homes. She told the Herald that she was glad that Biden had come to Ponce because she feels that recovery efforts usually prioritize the metropolitan area of Puerto Rico, where San Juan is located.

“They usually come to the north, fix up the north, and in the south they forget us,” she said.

Joshua Murphy Santiago, who owns a breakfast and brunch spot in the island’s south, said that Fiona’s floods destroyed the outside area of his establishment. About two weeks since the storm, the business is still running on a generator.

“We hope that in some way the visit helps Puerto Ricans and speeds up the process of restoring power, which is what Puerto Ricans need the most,” he said.

©2022 Miami Herald. Visit miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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