Administration

Biden draws contrast with Trump during post-hurricane Puerto Rico trip

President Biden on Monday sought to contrast his support for Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Fiona with the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria during a trip to the storm-ravaged island.

Biden has repeatedly emphasized in recent days that he has the plight of Puerto Rico in mind even as much of the nation’s attention shifted to Florida and damage from Hurricane Ian. The president on Monday traveled to Ponce, a badly damaged part of the island, to deliver the message personally to residents, emergency responders and volunteers who are picking up the pieces after yet another devastating storm.

“I’m heading to 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,” Biden told reporters before leaving the White House on Monday.

After a tumultuous relationship between former President Trump and island leaders in recent years, Biden praised the resilience of the people of Puerto Rico in the face of numerous natural disasters. And he rattled off the steps he’d taken quickly to free up resources to ensure the island has what it needs to start the recovery process.

“We came here in person to show that we’re with you. All of America is with you as you receive and recover and rebuild,” Biden said during his visit. “I’m confident we’re going to be able to do all you want, governor, and I’m committed to this island.”

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi (D) said he’s “confident” that Biden will give equal treatment to the people of the U.S. territory.

“We want to be treated in the same way as our fellow Americans in the states in the times of need. All American citizens, regardless of where they live in the United States, should receive the same support from the federal government,” the governor said in remarks ahead of the president’s.

While on the island, the president and first lady Jill Biden helped pack bags with food and other goods alongside volunteers on the island, and he received a briefing from local officials on the state of the recovery from Hurricane Fiona.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre touted that the president was traveling to Ponce, which she described as the hardest-hit part of the island from the hurricane.

“And it is an area that presidents have not gone to before, and I think that shows the president and the first lady’s commitment to the people of Puerto Rico,” Jean-Pierre said.

Many of the sights of Hurricane Fiona’s destruction were all too familiar for Puerto Rico after Maria in 2017. Fiona hit with sustained winds of 100 miles per hour, dropped 30 inches of rain on parts of the island and caused an islandwide blackout. 

The dominant image of Trump’s visit to the island after Hurricane Maria in 2017 was of the then-president flipping paper towel rolls into a crowd as if he were shooting a basketball, prompting critics to accuse Trump of trivializing the moment.

Following Maria, the Trump administration blocked relief with red tape and was slow to deploy aid and funds for reconstruction projects. While Trump was reluctant to disburse funds, the former president celebrated the federal government’s reaction to Maria as an unsung success. 

On Monday, President Biden announced $60 million in additional funding, which stems from the bipartisan infrastructure law, to upgrade levees and flood walls and create a new flood warning system in Puerto Rico.  

He also announced a new effort to make Puerto Rico’s energy grid more resilient.

“I’m ready to deploy and expedite more resources from the Department of Energy and other federal agencies … to help transform the entire system so the Puerto Rican people can get clean, reliable, affordable power they need and the power stays in homes and hospitals when storms like Fiona strike,” he said.

The hurricane once again showcased issues with Puerto Rico’s power grid, which completely collapsed after Maria and has not yet been fully rebuilt. The power grid has been managed by a private entity since June 2021, and the hurricane and blackout it caused have raised more tensions over Puerto Rico’s infrastructure.

Jean-Pierre on Monday told reporters that the resilience of the grid is a “priority” for the administration when asked how long efforts to make it more secure will take.

When the hurricane first hit, Biden quickly activated emergency funds after Pierluisi declared a state of emergency and the president called the governor about the federal response.

The federal government has sent over 1,200 federal personnel since the hurricane hit, Biden said on Monday. 

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Dianne Criswell told reporters en route to Puerto Rico that her first trip upon taking the job was to the island to get a handle on the challenges it faces and “to make sure they understood this administration, the Biden-Harris administration, we’re there to support them.”

Criswell said she’s gotten positive feedback from local officials on the island in their meetings. Asked about the contrast between the Trump administration and the Biden administration, Criswell said the current White House is “laser-focused” on supporting Puerto Rico.

“I’ll just say we’re focused on helping Puerto Rico,” Criswell said. “We know there may have been some issues in the previous administration. We are laser-focused on giving them the support they need. That’s what my job has been. That’s what the president has directed me to do. And that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”

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