Fiona Recovery in Puerto Rico to Cost Billions, FEMA Chief Says

  • In Business
  • 2022-10-03 17:36:46Z
  • By Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- The cost of the effort to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Fiona will run into the billions, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said as President Joe Biden flew to survey the damage.

"It's going to be in the billions," FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to the island, adding that the money would come from multiple federal funding streams.

While in Puerto Rico, Biden plans to announce more than $60 million in funding to strengthen the island's resilience to flooding. The funding, which comes from an infrastructure law Biden signed last year, will go toward bolstering levees, reinforcing flood walls and establishing a flood warning system, according to a White House official.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stressed Monday that the $60 million in funding Biden will announce comes on top of $2 billion that has already been allocated for the island through Biden's signature infrastructure law.

The president and First Lady Jill Biden are scheduled to visit Ponce -- one of the hardest-hit areas of the island -- to meet with local leaders and families affected by the storm. Biden will be briefed on the ground about ongoing recovery efforts.

The Bidens are expected to pack care packages with food and other essentials in a community service project during their trip.

Hurricane Fiona caused catastrophic flooding and knocked out power across the island as it made landfall in September.

Power has now been restored to an estimated 92% of customers as of Monday, according to Luma Energy, a private company managing the island's power grid since last year.

Criswell told reporters Monday that 95% of water had been restored, though she said some of that was via temporary fixes.

Biden's trip to Puerto Rico is the first of two planned visits to storm-ravaged regions this week. On Wednesday, he will also travel to Florida, which was hit last week by Hurricane Ian.

Biden has vowed to commit the full strength of the federal government to recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the US mainland in response to the two hurricanes.

Biden on Saturday said the destruction from Ian was "likely to rank among the worst in the nation's history." Damage estimates have ranged from $68 billion to $100 billion.

On the Ground

On Monday, Roberto Delgado, 32, was unloading a new mattress and couch after Fiona's floodwaters swamped the home he shares with his mother in the community of San Jose, Toa Baja, on Puerto Rico's northern coast.

Billions were pledged by the federal government after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in 2017, but Delgado said very little of it has been seen in his flood-plagued community.

"I would tell Biden that the island needs help, but he also needs to make sure that the help gets to the people who need it," he said. "We hear about all this money floating around but we never see it. And I know we're not the only ones in this situation."

Puerto Rico has never fully recovered from Maria, which caused more than $90 billion in damage and decimated the power grid, leaving some areas without electricity for almost a year.

The prolonged outages and lack of other essential services ultimately contributed to the death of almost 3,000 people, according to a George Washington University report commissioned by the Puerto Rican government.

Five years after Maria, the recovery process is moving at a glacial pace. Of the $9.5 billion in federal funds earmarked to overhaul the electrical grid, only about $40 million has been disbursed, according to FEMA Associate Administrator Anne Bink.

Of the $21 billion that FEMA has designated for public assistance projects overall in Puerto Rico in the wake of Maria, only 2% has been spent, said Chris Currie, a director in the Government Accountability Office's Homeland Security and Justice Team.

EARLIER: Hurricane Fiona Exposes Puerto Rico's Fragile Power Grid

Biden is the seventh US president to make an official visit to the US commonwealth -- although others have come in an unofficial capacity.

When Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, traveled to the island after Hurricane Maria, any goodwill he generated by showing up quickly evaporated as he playfully tossed paper towels at hurricane victims and then later questioned the extent of the damage and death toll.

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