'We owe Puerto Rico a hell of a lot': Biden visits to assess Fiona recovery efforts

As more rain threatened hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico on Monday, President Joe Biden promised to rebuild the island – stronger than it was before it was hit by two devastating hurricanes in just five years.

“You have had to bear so much,” Biden said, wearing an open-collar, blue oxford shirt in the steamy heat of Port of Ponce. “And you haven’t gotten the help in a timely way.”

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi pressed Biden to expand federal assistance, saying all U.S. citizens deserve the same amount of help, wherever they live.

“We want to be treated in the same way as our fellow Americans in the states in times of need,” Pierluisi said.

Biden  visited the U.S. territory two days before he travels to Florida to assess rescue and recovery efforts there from Hurricane Ian.

While Fiona was a Category 1 hurricane compared with Category 4 Ian, Puerto Rico had never fully recovered from Hurricane Maria, which destroyed the electrical system and killed roughly 3,000 people in 2017.

President Joe Biden, flanked by first lady Jill Biden and Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi, delivers remarks in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona in Ponce, Puerto Rico, on October 3, 2022.
President Joe Biden, flanked by first lady Jill Biden and Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi, delivers remarks in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona in Ponce, Puerto Rico, on October 3, 2022.

The latest

  • After Fiona brought islandwide power outages, more than 90% of customers have been restored with power and 95% now have water, Deanne Criswell, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told reporters traveling with Biden. About 120,000 still lacked power Monday, according to the tracking website PowerOutage.

  • Although Fiona’s winds were not as strong as Maria’s, the hurricane caused a lot of water damage compared with previous storms. Puerto Rico experienced widespread landslides, damaged homes, washed-out bridges and downed power lines as torrential rains flooded the island.

  • The federal government is paying for 30 days' worth of recovery actions, including debris removal, search-and-rescue efforts, emergency food and shelter, and power and water restoration. Pierluisi asked Biden for an additional 180 days of funding.

  • The federal government has also temporarily waived a federal law to allow for foreign diesel deliveries to help power generators.

  • During his visit, Biden announced Puerto Rico was receiving more than $60 million from an infrastructure package approved  last year. The money is for shoring up levees, strengthening flood walls and creating a new flood warning system.

  • Biden said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm would lead a “supercharged effort” to modernize Puerto Rico’s power grid.

Too much?: Will Puerto Ricans head to the mainland US after Hurricane Fiona?

First lady Jill Biden participates in a community service project to help those impacted by Hurricane Fiona at Centro Sor Isolina Ferre Aguayo School in Ponce, Puerto Rico, October 3, 2022.
First lady Jill Biden participates in a community service project to help those impacted by Hurricane Fiona at Centro Sor Isolina Ferre Aguayo School in Ponce, Puerto Rico, October 3, 2022.

What Biden did in Puerto Rico

Biden was making his first trip as president to Puerto Rico, where he met with families and community leaders from the hardest-hit areas.

After being briefed on ongoing recovery efforts, Biden went to a school where onions, rice, nuts, boxed juice and chickpeas were among the goods being bagged for distribution.

He was accompanied by first lady Jill Biden, who helped bag food, and by Criswell.

FEMA and other federal agencies have deployed more than 1,000 workers to Puerto Rico to assist the 700 employees based on the island. The personnel included search and rescue teams, bilingual Disaster Survivor Assistance Teams and power restoration experts.

President Donald Trump tosses paper towels into a crowd as he hands out supplies at Calvary Chapel, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.
President Donald Trump tosses paper towels into a crowd as he hands out supplies at Calvary Chapel, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.

Biden and Fiona, Trump and Maria

Biden’s handling of Hurricane Fiona may draw comparisons with former President Donald Trump’s dealings with Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Trump accused island officials of poor leadership, wasteful spending and not appreciating his administration's efforts to help. The mayor of San Juan, whose leadership was criticized by Trump, in turn went after Trump for tossing rolls of paper towels into a crowd when he visited the island after Maria struck.

The Biden administration, however, has drawn some criticism of its own for Fiona. Some community and nonprofit leaders questioned why Biden’s disaster declaration didn’t initially cover all of Puerto Rico, and complained of slow-flowing aid, Politico has reported.

Puerto Ricans are also concerned their needs will be overshadowed by Florida's.

Nelson Cirino sees his bedroom after the winds of hurricane Fiona tore the roof off his house in Loiza, Puerto Rico, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022.
Nelson Cirino sees his bedroom after the winds of hurricane Fiona tore the roof off his house in Loiza, Puerto Rico, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022.

What they are saying

  • “We owe Puerto Rico a hell of a lot more than they’ve already gotten,” Biden said Saturday at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Phoenix Awards.

  • "We’re confident that the president will hear our call for equal treatment," Pierluisi said.

  • “It is our fundamental priority to help Puerto Rico not only recover, but to actually prosper,” Vice President Kamala Harris said.

  • “We are committed to continuing to work with the governor of Puerto Rico in his efforts to make sure that we can rebuild this grid in a way that's actually going to be more resilient for future impacts,” Criswell told reporters last week.

  • “I am sure that both in Florida and Puerto Rico we WILL come back from this disaster, and as Americans we must all stand together, in a bipartisan way to make sure the rebuilding happens visibly and promptly,” tweeted Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s delegate in Congress.

Want to know more?

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden visits Puerto Rico, hit hard by Hurricane Fiona