President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden finished a three-hour visit to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico on Monday evening, leaving residents with mixed feelings about whether it will make a difference in speeding up the island's recovery.
Mercedita International Airport in Ponce, where the Bidens landed, was submerged under brown water just two weeks ago when Hurricane Fiona brought heavy rains that caused a nearby river to burst out of its bank and flood the area with 6 feet of water.
It also flooded the Central Mercedita community a few minutes north of the airport, stranding people for days.
The community of nearly 200 families has not had electricity since Sept. 18, when an islandwide blackout was reported about an hour before Hurricane Fiona’s eye entered the southwestern coast.
Gerardo Manuel Robles, Central Mercedita's community leader, said families are spending $30 to $50 daily to buy fuel to power their generators. Fallen trees and blue tarps sit on top of many destroyed homes.
"This is literally two minutes from where the president landed," Robles said in Spanish.
After they landed, the Bidens went to the Port of Ponce, where the president met with Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi and other officials and delivered a speech renewing his commitment to assist the U.S. territory in its recovery.
“You deserve every bit of help your country can give you,” Biden said. “That’s what I’m determined to do.”
The Bidens later visited the Sor Isolina Ferré relief center in Ponce, where they briefly met with community leaders and families affected by the hurricane.
Puerto Rican residents like Ileana Vargas of Cabo Rojo, where Fiona made landfall, said they wished the Bidens had spent more time visiting other communities and meeting with more residents so they could see firsthand how many areas were devastated and still remain without electricity.
"He had no contact with the people," Vargas said in Spanish, "but we'll see what aid will be sent to the island."
Still, said Laura Domenech, a resident of Ponce, his presence on the island was significant.
"I think it’s very important that he did come," said Domenech, a senior medical officer at the Ponce Medical School Foundation. "For us, it’s really important that he made some remarks about sending us funds for restoration."
The president’s visit coincides with the approval of $60 million in additional aid to shore up levees, strengthen flood walls and create a new flood warning system ahead of future storms.
Robles is hopeful about the additional money, because it could prevent future floods in his community. However, he is skeptical about the government’s ability to use the aid in a timely manner, saying money assigned for similar purposes after Hurricane Maria in 2017 has not been put to use.
Close to $155 million in emergency individual and public assistance for residents affected by Fiona has been made available to Puerto Rico. So far, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved more than 200,000 individual assistance applications on the island, allowing people to receive $700 "to help cover the essentials for just a little while," Biden said.
"Seven hundred dollars won't replace what you lost, not even close, but it can help take care of some of the basics while you catch your breath and get back on your feet," he added.
Biden's trip comes exactly five years after President Donald Trump's infamous visit to the island, where he threw paper towels at a crowd of Hurricane Maria survivors.
Jorge Schmidt Nieto, a political science professor at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez, remembers Trump's visit as "a cruel one," because he told the governor at the time that Puerto Rico was not enduring a real disaster — even though Hurricane Maria became the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. territory in 100 years.
“That’s why I said Biden is doing what any other president would’ve done," Schmidt Nieto, who lives in Cabo Rojo, said in Spanish. "But because Trump set such a low standard, the fact that Biden is not coming here to mock us feels like a big deal.”
While the Trump administration approved billions of dollars to help Puerto Rico rebuild after Maria, much of that aid was withheld, effectively delaying the island's reconstruction process. Under Biden, restrictions previously used to withhold the funds were lifted.
“We’re going to make sure you get every single dollar promised,” Biden said. “I’m determined to help Puerto Rico build faster than in the past and stronger and better prepared for the future.”
Hurricane Maria caused $90 billion in damage. Congress allocated at least $71 billion for general recovery and reconstruction operations, of which $62 billion has been made available to the island. About 72% of the funds have not yet reached local communities, mainly because permanent reconstruction work on the island began in late 2020.
Officials are still assessing Fiona's damage, but FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell expects it to reach billions.
In August, FEMA made $9.5 billion available to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid after Maria. On Monday, Biden promised to add more aid and to invest additional resources to ensure “the Puerto Rican people can get clean, reliable, affordable power” after Fiona.
Based on data provided by Luma Energy, the private company in charge of power transmission and distribution, government officials insist that power has been restored to 93% of customers in Puerto Rico after Fiona.
But residents like Vargas and Schmidt Nieto find that hard to believe.
"When I hear that nearly 90% of Puerto Rico has power, it feels like having toilet paper thrown at my face. I’m sure that comment doesn’t sit well with the more than 100,000 people still without power," Schmidt Nieto said. “It leaves this impression that things are improving when, in fact, things in a big part of the island are still the same."
Vargas agreed, adding that most of her colleagues at a hospital in the nearby town of San German still do not have power. Residents in other parts of the island have also reported having unreliable power access since their electricity was restored.
"The worst damage is currently being caused by the lack of electricity, and I did not see President Biden with an attitude of putting pressure on the company that has to solve that problem,” Schmidt Nieto said.