By DARLENE SUPERVILLE and DANICA COTO, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Monday will survey damage from Hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico, where tens of thousands of people are still without power two weeks after the storm hit.
The Category 1 hurricane knocked out electrical power to the U.S. territory of 3.2 million people, 44 percent of whom live below the poverty line.
Power has been restored to about 90 percent 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.
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 María devastated the island in 2017.
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.”
During his visit, Biden planned to announce 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, the White House said.
“We see what you’re going through, and we’re with you,” Biden told Puerto Ricans and Floridians in a message Sunday on his official Twitter account.
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 the damage.
The president, accompanied by first lady Jill Biden and Deanne Criswell, the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, was to touch down Monday in Ponce, Puerto Rico, a city on the southern coast. Most of the storm damage is in southern Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said he would update Biden on recovery efforts.
“We will make sure to keep working together to ensure the continuity of a reconstruction already underway,” the governor tweeted on Sunday.
Fiona caused catastrophic flooding, tore apart roads and bridges, and unleashed more than 100 landslides when it hit Puerto Rico on September 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 generators 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.
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.”
Criswell, who discussed the aftermath of Fiona and Ian on four Sunday TV news programs, echoed Biden’s promise to Fiona’s victims.
“We have not left Puerto Rico,” she said on CBS’ Face the Nation.
Criswell said on ABC’s This Week that FEMA personnel were sent to the island before the storm hit and that “they’re going to stay with the people of Puerto Rico” through the recovery efforts.
Biden recently told Pierluisi that he authorized 100 percent 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 percent of its food.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL, 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.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.