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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden to visit Puerto Rico, Florida to assess damage from storms

President Joe Biden, center, receives a briefing on Hurricane Ian at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

By Michael D. Shear

President Joe Biden and the first lady, Jill Biden, will travel to Puerto Rico today to survey damage to the island from Hurricane Fiona and will go Wednesday to Florida, where Hurricane Ian left parts of the state in ruins, the White House announced Saturday night.

A statement from the White House said Biden will arrive at the Mercedita International Airport in Ponce in the morning and is expected to offer remarks after 12:45 p.m. in media activity that will be heavily controlled by the Secret Service. Local officials hope the president not only surveys damage but also takes a closer look at the island’s power problems.

On Sunday, LUMA Energy, the private operator of the transmission and distribution system of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, announced that it had restored electricity service to over 1.34 million customers, or 92% of total customers. Given the severity of damage in the hardest-hit regions, LUMA utility field crews continue to prioritize and perform critical repairs across the western and southern parts of the island and are on track to meet LUMA’s estimated restoration timeframe of Oct. 4-6 for Ponce and Mayagüez.

Biden had said in the past several days that he expected to travel to both places to reassure residents that the federal government will help in their recoveries.

“In addition to what we’re doing for Florida and South Carolina, we remain focused on recovery efforts in Puerto Rico as well,” Biden said Friday at the White House. “We’re going to stay with and stay at it as long as it takes.”

The president’s visit to Florida will be the first since he and Ron DeSantis, the state’s governor, have spent months clashing over transgender rights, abortion, immigration and other issues that are at the center of congressional elections next month. DeSantis has said that the storm, which made landfall on the state’s Gulf Coast as a powerful Category 4, will go down in history as one of the strongest to hit Florida because of the catastrophic flooding that wiped away whole towns and killed dozens.

As the hurricane approached last week, however, Biden and DeSantis stayed away from political attacks. Asked by a reporter in Washington about his relationship with DeSantis, the president called it irrelevant.

“In fact, very fine. He complimented me,” Biden said. “He thanked me for the immediate response we had. He told me how much he appreciated it. He said he was extremely happy with what’s going on.”

The president added: “This is not about anything having to do with our disagreements politically. This is about saving people’s lives, homes, and businesses.”

DeSantis has changed his tone as well in recent days. In the past, he criticized federal hurricane assistance as a “boondoggle” and a “put it on the credit card mentality.” But last week, DeSantis urged the federal government to come to his state’s aid.

“You know, when people are fighting for their lives, when their whole livelihood is at stake, when they’ve lost everything — if you can’t put politics aside for that, then you’re just not going to be able to,” the governor said.

There is a long history of presidents from both parties visiting disaster areas, in part to demonstrate that they understand the magnitude of the crisis and that political affiliation will not determine how much help the state gets. Former President George W. Bush was criticized for flying over the devastation wrought in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and not, initially, touring the damage on the ground.

But the reality is that it can be difficult for presidents to visit too soon after a disaster strikes. Their presence — along with the large number of vehicles, Secret Service officers, local police protection and other staff — can distract from the efforts to recover and rebuild.

After a visit to the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters last Thursday, just after Hurricane Ian made landfall, Biden said he would travel as soon as possible to support the local first responders and federal officials who were already rescuing people from rooftops.

“When the conditions allow it, I’m going to going to Florida to thank them personally so we don’t get in the way.” Biden said at the time.

“I’ll do our best — we’re going to do our best to build Florida back as quickly as possible. But we’re not going to be leaving.”

“We’re going to build it back with the state and local government,” he added. “However long it takes, we’re going to be there. That’s my commitment to you.”

The hurricanes wrought devastation in both places. But the damage in Puerto Rico may prove especially difficult to recover from since the island had yet to fully recover from Hurricane Maria almost five years ago.

Ten days after Hurricane Fiona struck Sept. 16, more than 365,000 people on the island remained without power, raising questions about the inability of the federal and local efforts to rebuild the island’s fragile electrical grid.

Biden noted the island’s difficult history with hurricanes on Sept. 22, just days after the storm swept through the island.

“To the people of Puerto Rico, who are still hurting from Hurricane Maria five years later, I know that we’re — they should know that this — we are with you,” he said. “We’re not going to walk away. We mean it.”

STAR staff contributed to this report.

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