President Joe Biden will survey storm damage and meet with families and community leaders in Puerto Rico on Monday, where he's set to announce more than $60 million in funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for disaster recovery and preparedness for future storms.
Before boarding Marine One, the president said he's visiting Puerto Rico because "they haven't been taken very good care of."
"They're trying like hell to catch up from the last hurricane. I want to see the state of affairs today and make sure we push everything we can," Biden said.
The recovery and ongoing search and rescue efforts after Hurricane Ian have threatened to overshadow the devastation in Puerto Rico, which was ravaged by Hurricane Fiona more than two weeks ago. More than 100,000 people continue to go without power as a result of the storm damage.
The official number of fatalities in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Fiona stands at 25, but experts fear the death toll could be far higher, especially since some of the most devastated regions of the island remain difficult to or inaccessible due to washed-away roads, mudslides and ongoing power outages.
Once on the ground in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Biden will receive a briefing on the storm's aftermath. He'll then deliver remarks about the administration's response efforts. The new round of funding will be used to shore up levees, strengthen flood walls and create a new flood warning system that will help Puerto Ricans prepare for future threats.
Biden and first Lady Jill Biden will meet with families and community leaders later Monday at Centro Sor Isolina Ferré Aguayo School, where they will participate in a community service project and speak with federal and local officials who have played a role in Puerto Rico's recovery.
The most recent presidential visit to the U.S. island territory was when then-President Donald Trump traveled to the storm-ravaged region after Hurricane Maria in 2017. At the time, there was an overwhelming sentiment that Puerto Ricans had been neglected by the U.S. government as they sought to pick up the pieces.
Trump met with officials and victims and was shown destroyed houses and uprooted trees. The trip also produced one of the former president's oddest and most infamous moments in office: Trump tossed rolls of paper towels to a crowd that was gathered to see him at Calvary Chapel in San Juan.
Trump told Puerto Ricans they should be proud that only 16 people had died, though the number continued to rise once he departed. The government of Puerto Rico later said 64 people died due to the storm, but research attributed an estimated 2,975 deaths in the weeks after the storm.
Karina Claudio Betancourt, director of the Open Society Foundation's $20 million post-Hurricane Maria project in Puerto Rico, said she would initially say "welcome to Puerto Rico" to Biden before talking to him about why Fiona caused such devastation despite being a "weaker" storm compared to Maria.
"This is the place that five years after Maria we're still reeling from that hurricane," she said. "It wasn't only a natural disaster. It was a political disaster."
Now Biden's response to Hurricane Fiona will be watched closely by Puerto Ricans.
LUMA, the private company managing the island's power grid, said 92 percent of its 1.5 million customers on the island have power again, although residents in restored areas report the power continues to cut in and out. The biggest ongoing power loss remains in the Mayagüez region, where 32 percent of customers were without power as of Sunday evening. About 14 percent of customers in Ponce, where Biden is expected to visit this afternoon, had not had their power restored as of Sunday evening.
Ruth Santiago, a community and environmental attorney in Puerto Rico and a member of the activist group Queremos Sol - "We Want Solar" in English - is meeting with Biden Monday, and her coalition wrote an open letter to the president demanding an "urgent" transition of the electric system. FEMA should prioritize spending the billions of dollars set aside for Puerto Rico's electric grid after Maria to pay for rooftop solar systems and batteries in homes, businesses and institutions in Puerto Rico, starting with the poorest and most marginalized communities, the coalition states in its letter.
The letter notes that some of the 25 Fiona-related deaths have been attributed to a lack of electricity.
"To a large extent, these deaths could have been prevented," the letter states.