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President Biden visits Puerto Rico on Monday, will announce aid after Hurricane Fiona

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 10/3/2022 Syra Ortiz-Blanes, 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 and first lady Jill Biden are traveling to Puerto Rico on Monday, the first stop to storm-stricken parts of the United States after Hurricane Fiona flooded the island last month and Hurricane Ian devastated southwestern Florida less than two weeks later.

Biden is expected to announce more than $60 million in aid to Puerto Rico to create a new flood warning system and fortify flood walls and levees, according to a White House official. He will also meet residents and prepare bags filled with food and relief during the presidential visit, in which Federal Emergency Management Agency head Deanne Criswell will participate.

The Bidens are slated to land at the Mercedita International Airport in the city of Ponce, the site of previous presidential visits and 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.

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 damages, over 400 rescues took place.

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

As of Sunday evening, private power utility operator LUMA energy said 92% 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 to 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 $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 aboad board 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 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 declaration of emergency 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 will visit Florida on Wednesday, a week after Category 4 Hurricane Ian killed at least 85 people, according to county and state officials, and devastated Gulf cities and towns like Fort Myers, Cape Coral and Sanibel Island.

Presidential Visits to Puerto Rico

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. Before that, President John F. Kennedy and former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy had gone to the island in December 1961, his first stop before visiting Venezuela and Colombia.

Other presidents that have also visited Puerto Rico include Herbert Hoover, who addressed Puerto Ricans from a balcony in Ponce’s City Hall on the morning of March 23, 1931, and said he was “extremely glad of the opportunity” to “learn more about your problems.” Three years later, in July 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told crowds in the Puerto Rican capital about his drive through the island, which took him through Mayagüez and Ponce.

The first sitting president to ever visit the island was Theodore Roosevelt in November 1906, about eight years after the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American war. He arrived at the island by ship through Ponce after surveying the progress of construction of the Panama Canal, “the first visit abroad by a President or President-elect,” according to the U.S. State Department.

Roosevelt later boasted to Congress during a briefing of the “rapid growth” of the sugar and tobacco industry under U.S. occupation, and alluded to the destruction of devastating Hurricane San Ciriaco in 1899, from which he said the island’s coffee industry had “never recovered.” Roosevelt also advocated for Congress to give Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship, which would happen 11 years after his visit under Woodrow Wilson.

McClatchy White House reporter Alex Roarty contributed to this story

This is a developing story. Come back for updates.

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

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