WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden promised to “rebuild it all” after arriving in Puerto Rico on Monday to survey damage from Hurricane Fiona, as tens of thousands of people remain 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 only the latest in a string of disasters that have battered the U.S. territory in recent years.
“Puerto Ricans are a strong people,” Biden said. "But even so, you have had to bear so much, and more than need be, and you haven't gotten the help in a timely way."
Hurricane Fiona knocked out electrical power to the U.S. territory of 3.2 million people, 44% of whom live below the poverty line.
“What happened with this hurricane is that even though it was Category 1, in terms of water it was like Category 4,” Puerto Rico’s governor, 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 hardest hit areas of Puerto Rico’s southern and western regions, continue to struggle in the dark. Another 66,000 customers are without water.
The weather remained ominous as Biden spoke. Thunder rumbled and lightning flashed in the distance.
“I don't want the headline to read, ‘Biden brings storm to Puerto Rico,’" he joked. "So I'm gonna maybe have to cut this a little short.”
Biden has pledged that the U.S. government will not abandon Puerto Rico as it starts to rebuild again, five years after the more powerful Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.
While leaving the White House on Monday morning, the president said he was going in part because people there “haven’t been taken very good care of,” and they were “trying like hell to catch up from the last hurricane.”
Biden announced the administration will provide $60 million through last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law to help Puerto Rico shore up levees, strengthen flood walls and create a new flood warning system so the island will be better prepared for future storms.
Florida is cleaning up after Hurricane Ian churned across that state last week, killing more than 60 people, decimating some coastal communities and flooding others. Biden plans to visit Florida on Wednesday to survey damage.
"At times like these, our nation comes together, puts aside our political differences and gets to work," Biden said.
On Monday in Puerto Rico, the president was accompanied by first lady Jill Biden and Deanne Criswell, the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator. They touched down in Ponce, a city on the southern coast, where most of the storm damage is.
“He’s going to the hardest hit area of Puerto Rico, and it’s an area where presidents have not gone to before," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Fiona caused catastrophic flooding, tore apart roads and bridges, and unleashed more than 100 landslides when it hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 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 power outage.
Government officials have estimated some $3 billion in damages, but warn that costs could rise significantly as evaluations continue.
Some people in Puerto Rico wondered whether Biden’s visit would change anything as they recalled how President Donald Trump visited after Hurricane Maria hit as a more powerful Category 4 storm in 2017, and tossed rolls of paper towels into a crowd in a display that riled many.
"We know that there may have been some issues in the previous administration," Criswell said Monday. "We are laser-focused on giving them the support they need.”
Criswell, who said FEMA personnel were sent 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 administration cares for them, and that they’re going to be there for them to support them through this response and recovery effort," she said.
There's entrenched skepticism in some areas of the island 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 in the aftermath of Fiona, which cut off his neighborhood from any help for a week.
“They always offer the lollipop to the kids,” he said, referring to Biden’s visit. “But in the end, the outcome is always the same. The aid goes to those who have the most.”
Biden recently told Pierluisi that he authorized 100% federal funding for a month for debris removal, search and rescue efforts, power and water restoration, shelter and food.
The lack of electrical power on the island led to the temporary closure of businesses, including gas stations and grocery stores, as fuel supplies dwindled amid heavy generator use. As a result, many cheered the Biden administration's decision to temporarily waive a federal law so that a British Petroleum ship could deliver 300,000 barrels of diesel.
Many also have begun demanding that Puerto Rico be fully exempted from the law, known as the Jones Act, that requires that all goods transported to Puerto Rico be aboard a ship built in the U.S., owned and crewed by U.S. citizens and flying the U.S. flag. This drives up costs for an island that already imports 85% of its food.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also said Puerto Ricans would not be forgotten.
Rubio said the island appeared to be “in better position to respond this time around” due to the prepositioning of personnel and supplies before the storm hit and because part of Puerto Rico's electrical grid had been rebuilt after Hurricane Maria.
“We will do everything we can, we always have, to support Puerto Rico now in the recovery after this, yet another devastating storm,” Rubio said on CNN's “State of the Union.”