WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden traveled to Puerto Rico on Monday, promising $60 million in hurricane relief funds and “every bit of help” from the federal government to help the storm-battered territory rebuild faster than in the past.
Biden and first lady Jill Biden visited Ponce, a city on Puerto Rico’s southern coast that was hit by Hurricane Fiona two weeks earlier – five years after Hurricane Maria, a strong Category 4 storm, decimated the island.
“For everyone who survived Maria, Fiona must have been an all-too-familiar nightmare,” Biden told a crowd, noting that he was speaking quickly to beat the ominous-looking storm clouds forming overhead. “You know better than anyone that over time these losses add up.”
The trip to Puerto Rico was one of two the Bidens will take this week to survey storm damage. They will visit the Fort Myers area in Florida on Wednesday, according to a person who was familiar with the president’s plans but was not authorized to describe them publicly. Hurricane Ian, a Category 4 storm, devastated parts of southwest and central Florida and has left more than 80 people dead.
Before Biden’s arrival in Puerto Rico, the White House announced that the territory would receive $60 million to help coastal areas prepare for future storms, and pointed out that the administration had removed many of the restrictions on federal aid that Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, put into place during his presidency.
“We’re going to make sure you get every single dollar promised,” Biden said. “That’s why I approved emergency declarations in Puerto Rico before the hurricane.”
On Sept. 20, the Biden administration announced a surge of Federal Emergency Management Agency resources to Puerto Rico, including search-and-rescue teams and incident management teams. Deanne Criswell, the administrator for FEMA, also traveled there to assess the damage.
The approach was meant to be markedly different from the one taken by Trump, who was accused of slow-walking aid to the island after Maria hit. Trump had a long-running – and often one-sided – feud with Puerto Rico, beginning in 2017, when he appeared in San Juan and tossed rolls of paper towels at people whose homes and livelihoods had been destroyed by Hurricane Maria. (On Monday, Biden briefly posed for a photograph inside a school gymnasium as Jill Biden filled plastic bags with groceries and supplies.)
In 2018, Trump suggested that the death toll from Hurricanes Irma and Maria had been inflated “to make me look as bad as possible.” He continued to lash out at Puerto Rico throughout his presidency, and at one point mused to aides about trading it to Denmark in his long-running gambit to buy Greenland.
With his visit to Ponce, Biden seemed determined to underscore that his administration would be a partner in rebuilding efforts: He told reporters before leaving the White House that he was visiting Puerto Rico because “they haven’t been taken very good care of.”
“They’ve been trying like hell to catch up from the last hurricane,” he said. “I want to see the state of affairs today and make sure we push everything we can.”
The funding for Puerto Rico that Biden announced will come from the bipartisan infrastructure law that passed last fall. But it is only a fraction of what the territory has said it needs to rebuild from Fiona and other serious storms.
Puerto Rico has struggled to rebuild housing and crucial infrastructure in the five years since it was hit by Maria and Irma, another powerful hurricane, in September 2017. Maria destroyed the entire power grid, wiped out cellular towers and ultimately left 2,975 people dead, according to the Puerto Rican government.Congress allocated some $64 billion for disaster relief from those storms, but only about a quarter of that amount has been spent, in part because of the slow pace of payments and the time it takes to complete rebuilding projects, according to a 2021 report by the Center for a New Economy, a nonpartisan think tank in Puerto Rico.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on Monday, Criswell said the agency had authorized $9.5 billion for Puerto Rico to restore its fragile power grid after Maria, but added that she did not have an additional estimate for damage caused by Fiona. Still, she said, on a recent trip she noticed that entire roads had been washed away and water distribution lines had been “completely damaged” from Fiona, leaving rural communities at risk.
“They were very mountainous communities, hard to access,” she said. “It’s going to be in the billions.”
Officials in Puerto Rico have pleaded with the federal government for help with restoring infrastructure lost by the storms and have expressed particular concern with shoring up the island’s power grid. A New York Times examination of FEMA data in 2019 showed that projects in Puerto Rico are backlogged compared with projects in Texas and Florida.
“In short, my asks to you, Mr. President, are straightforward,” Pierluisi said. “We want to be treated in the same way as our fellow Americans in times of need. All American citizens, regardless of where they live in the United States, should receive the same support from the federal government.”