“We’re with you,” Biden says in Puerto Rico ahead of visit

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Monday will survey the damage from Hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico, where tens of thousands of people remain without power two weeks after the storm hit.

The Category 1 hurricane knocked out power in the US territory of 3.2 million people, 44% 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 southern and western Puerto Rico, continue to struggle in the dark. Another 66,000 customers are without water.

Biden has vowed that the US government will not abandon Puerto Rico as it begins to rebuild, five years after the strongest Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.

“We see what you’re going through and we stand with you,” Biden told Puerto Ricans and Floridians in a message Sunday on his official Twitter account.

Florida is cleaning up after Hurricane Ian ripped through the 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 Dean Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was due to land on Monday in Ponce, Puerto Rico, a city on the southern coast. Most of the damage from the storm is in southern Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluigi said he would update Biden on recovery efforts.

“We will make sure we continue to work together to ensure the continuity of the rebuilding that is already underway,” the governor tweeted Sunday.

Fiona caused devastating flooding, destroyed roads and bridges and triggered 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 using candles or a generator during the island-wide power outage.

Government officials have estimated about $3 billion in damages, but warn that the cost could rise significantly as assessments continue.

Some people in Puerto Rico wondered if Biden’s visit would make a difference as they recalled how President Donald Trump visited after Hurricane Maria hit as the strongest Category 4 storm in 2017 and threw rolls of paper towels into a crowd in a display that angered many.

Manuel Veguilla, a 63-year-old retired engineer who lives in a remote community in the northern mountain town of Caguas, said he did not expect his life to improve after Fiona, which cut off his neighborhood from any help for a week.

“They always offer the lollipop to the kids,” he said, referring to the Biden visit. “But in the end, the result is always the same. Help goes to those who have the most.”

Criswell, who discussed the aftermath of Fiona and Ian on four television news programs Sunday, echoed Biden’s promise to Fiona’s victims.

“We’re not out of Puerto Rico,” he told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Criswell told ABC’s “This Week” that FEMA personnel were sent to the island before the storm hit and that they will “stay with the people of Puerto Rico” through the recovery efforts.

Biden recently told Pierluigi that he had approved 100 percent federal funding for one month for debris removal, search and rescue efforts, power and water restoration, shelter and food.

Power shortages on the island led to the temporary closure of businesses, including gas stations and grocery stores, as fuel stocks dwindled amid heavy generator use. As a result, many cheered the Biden administration’s decision to temporarily waive a federal law so a British Petroleum ship could deliver 300,000 barrels of diesel.

Many also began demanding that Puerto Rico be exempted entirely from the law, known as the Jones Act, this requires that all goods transported to Puerto Rico be on a US-built, US-owned and US-flagged vessel. This increases costs for an island that already imports 85% of its food.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also said Puerto Ricans will not be forgotten.

Rubio said the island seemed “in a better position to respond this time” because of the deployment of personnel and supplies before the storm and because part of Puerto Rico’s power grid had been rebuilt after Hurricane Maria.

“We’re going to do everything we can, always have, to support Puerto Rico now in the recovery from this, another devastating storm,” Rubio said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”


Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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