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Biden, seeking contrast to Trump, vows $60 million in Puerto Rico visit

Trump was criticized for tossing paper towels after Hurricane Maria; Biden tried to signal a different approach

President Biden and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell hold a briefing on Sept. 22 in New York to address Hurricane Fiona’s impact on Puerto Rico. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

PONCE, Puerto Rico — President Biden visited volunteers and announced more than $60 million in funding during a trip Monday to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, seeking to draw a vivid contrast with his predecessor’s widely panned visit to the island five years ago.

The funding, meant to shore up levees, strengthen flood walls and create a new flood warning system, will come from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that Congress approved last year, according to a White House official. Biden sought to use the announcement to signal he would not abandon the often-neglected island until “every single thing” is done, as he put it.

The president and first lady Jill Biden also met with families and community leaders affected by Hurricane Fiona. They ended their visit by stopping at a school where volunteers were helping pack bags with food, water and other essential items — a portion of the visit that offered a contrast with President Donald Trump’s trip in 2017, when he tossed rolls of paper towels into a crowd in a suburb of San Juan after Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria.

Trump’s visit and broader hurricane response formed the backdrop of Biden’s trip to the storm-stricken U.S. territory, which White House officials said had been treated poorly by the Trump administration. Trump’s supporters saw his paper towel toss as playful, but his critics considered it imperious and insensitive.

“I’m heading to Puerto Rico because they haven’t been taken very good care of,” Biden told reporters before leaving the White House on Monday, exactly five years after Trump’s visit. “They’ve been trying like hell to catch up from the last hurricane.”

Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who joined Biden for the trip, also drew a contrast with Trump’s hurricane response. “We know that there may have been some issues with the previous administration,” she told reporters Monday, when asked what she had been hearing from Puerto Ricans on the ground. “We are laser-focused on giving them the support they need.”

But residents in the area visited by Biden on Monday said the federal response to Hurricane Fiona has left much to be desired, and they questioned where the billions that have been allocated for Puerto Rico since the last hurricane have gone.

After Air Force One touched down Monday afternoon, Criswell and Biden attended a briefing on the recovery efforts that have taken place since Hurricane Fiona slammed into Puerto Rico on Sept. 18. The Category 1 storm knocked out power across the U.S. territory and left more than 3 million residents in the dark.

“We came here in person to show that we are with you,” Biden said during a speech at a port facility in Ponce. “All of America is with you as you receive and recover and rebuild.”

During the briefing, Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi asked Biden to extend the federal government’s one-month pledge to provide 100 percent coverage for debris removal and other assistance for another six months, and made several other requests.

“In short, my asks to you, Mr. President, are straightforward. We want to be treated in the same way as our fellow Americans in the states in times of need,” Pierluisi said after the meeting.

Biden applauded and later said, “I’m confident we are going to be able to do all you want, governor, and I’m committed to this island.”

For his part, Trump in 2017 had accused local officials in Puerto Rico of wanting “everything done for them” and bristled at the idea of providing billions of dollars in federal funds to a U.S. territory he viewed as corrupt.

The recovery effort, which involves calls to rebuild key infrastructure in a more resilient way, could easily cost billions of additional dollars.

Pierluisi said that power had been restored to more than 90 percent of the island archipelago. But in the Ponce region in the south there remain vast pockets of powerlessness in communities such as Guánica.

Citing the emergency need for power generation, the Biden administration approved a legal waiver last week allowing Puerto Rico to receive a shipment of diesel fuel that had been held off the island’s coast, following an uproar among local officials and members of Congress. On Monday, Biden said he had deployed Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm to spearhead a new power initiative.

“We’ll help as you work to repair your grid quickly,” Biden said.

Despite the waiver and other federal efforts — including hundreds of FEMA officials who traveled to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the storm — the part of the island Biden visited Monday continues to reel from two major hurricanes, earthquakes and a pandemic. The slow-moving rebuilding effort has been beset by rising inflation and political turbulence in Washington.

Even before Biden’s arrival, residents and local officials were looking at the federal government to improve on the efforts from the past five years, when tens of billions of dollars allocated by Congress languished due to bureaucratic logjams. Biden’s visit dominated discussions in the area on Monday, with some residents speculating that it was the only reason power had been restored in Ponce.

“It’s all about Biden,” said Roberto Vega, raising the front page of el Vocero newspaper on Monday morning. “I want to know how we got all this money and in five years, there’s nothing different.”

As of August 2022, Puerto Rico had spent only about 19 percent of the $28 billion FEMA set aside for public assistance after Hurricane Maria, the Government Accountability Office reported last month. Trump placed restrictions on the spending, but Biden removed them after taking office.

Vega, a 65-year-old retiree in the neighborhood Barrio Tabaiba, watched from a rusty chair on his cement porch as a caravan of black vehicles rolled by his narrow street to a school where Biden was scheduled to visit. “Billions?” Vega said, raising his palms and outstretched fingers skyward. “Where?”

Vega said electricity arrived to most of the area late last week after 10 to 12 days without power. Neighbors speculated it was the president’s arrival that made their community a priority for Luma Energy, the private company operating the island’s electric transmission and distribution system. But no one knew for sure. This same area was without power for nearly three months after Hurricane Maria, Vega said.

Guánica Mayor Ismael Rodriguez Ramos said at least six neighborhoods are completely in the dark, according to a statement his office released Monday morning. He said he is worried that about two other storm systems developing in the Atlantic that may be on their way to the Caribbean.

Neighborhood streets where Biden’s motorcade traveled were littered with debris from the most recent storm and the ruins of homes abandoned after they were destroyed by the 2017 storm, residents said.

In nearby Salinas, which suffered catastrophic flooding of the Río Nigua, Mayor Karilyn Bonilla Colón released a statement calling on the presidential team to do all it can to alleviate the “burdensome bureaucracy suffocating” officials in Puerto Rico attempting to put federal funds to work.

“We know there are federal funds assigned for Puerto Rico’s reconstruction, but the processes to access those funds is, in some cases, excessively bureaucratic,” she said, adding the federal government can offer more flexibility to work directly with municipalities.

Bonilla Colón gave the example of a U.S. Army Corps of engineers project in which $60 million was set aside in 2018 for a flood control project on the same river that deluged her community. Army Corps officials told The Washington Post last month that the project was still being designed.

Ruth Santiago, an environmental justice lawyer in Salinas, was one of several community leaders who met with Biden during his visit. Her town suffered severe flooding and prolonged powerlessness following Hurricane Fiona and she has been an advocate for rooftop solar as an alternative the Puerto Rico’s fossil fuel-based power grid. Power was restored in Salinas, but it comes and goes with the sounds of puttering generators.

“Puerto Rico doesn’t have to be a place of disaster and devastation,” she said in an interview before Biden’s visit about what she planned to tell him. “It could be viable if federal funds are used in a way that decentralizes, decarbonizes and democratizes the power grid. FEMA has a key role but so far they have not been working in that direction.”

Small-business owner Henry Correa has been raising the alarm on the lack of electricity to his community of Boquerón, a seaside community west of where Biden visited. He thought about traveling to Ponce but decided he had to open his bar and grill for his employees despite not having power for 16 days.

“It impacts me financially and emotionally that this is the best the government can do,” said Correa, who owns the Beachside restaurant in Boquerón and represents several businesses in the popular southwestern seaside town. “I’d like to ask the president, what is the status of the reconstruction of the power grid?”

Like many Puerto Ricans, he expressed puzzlement at the pace of recovery and why it’s taking so long to release federal funds for these projects.

“Puerto Rico’s recovery needs to be a priority. The money is there but it’s not moving,” said Correa, who said he knows of a few projects in Boquerón that have barely begun the design phase.

About 13 miles from the spot where crowds were waiting for Biden in Ponce, Idabel Torres was unable to watch his remarks because she lives in a pocket of powerlessness.

For more than two weeks, Torres and her 70 or so neighbors have yet to see the lights so much as flicker in Barrio Marueño without a generator. Water returned to Marueño three days ago when FEMA attached a generator to the local water pump. It’s one sign that under Biden things are moving a bit more quickly than they did under the Trump administration, said Torres, a community leader. At least no one is throwing paper towels.

Still, at Torres’s house — not far from a fading sign announcing the historic investment of federal funds in Puerto Rico in recent years — there was little hope that another presidential visit would turn things around quickly.

“Since Maria, I live in constant disappointment,” she said. “I want to believe the president’s visit will help but if FEMA hasn’t done a good job, what can he do?”