Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Ponce, Puerto Rico
12:31 P.M. EDT
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: All right. Today, the President and the First Lady are visiting storm-ravaged Ponce, Puerto Rico, to reaffirm their commitment to the people of Puerto Rico as they recover and rebuild from Hurricane Fiona.
Even before Hurricane Fiona made landfall on the island, President Biden quickly mobilized federal resources to help local officials prepare for the storm. And every day and night since, we've been working in lockstep with community leaders and local officials to save lives, restore power, distribute food and water, clean up, and rebuild.
The President and First Lady will assess some of those recovery efforts, meet with families and community leaders devastated by the storm, and thank federal and local officials for their tireless work to support the people of Puerto Rico.
The President will also participate in an operational briefing with FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, Governor -- Governor Pedro Pierluisi, and additional federal and local officials to receive an update on ongoing damage assessments and recovery efforts.
Throughout the day, the President will also be joined by Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez; Congress- -- Congresswoman Jenniffer González-Colon -- Colón; Mayor Luis Pabón; and other federal and local officials.
Following the briefing, President Biden will deliver remarks to the people of Puerto Rico, assuring them that his administration will be there for them each step of the way for as long as it takes.
He will announce more than $60 million in additional funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to shore up levees, fortify flood walls, and create a new flood warning system in Puerto Rico. He will also announce a new effort to make Puerto Rico's energy grid more secure and resilient.
The President and First Lady will then take -- then visit a local school and community center to hear directly from community leaders, teachers, and families impacted by Hurricane Fiona and to help package food and other essential items as part of a community service project.
From day one, President Biden has made it a priority to support Puerto Rico's long-term recovery and increase its ability to withstand future storms. We removed burdensome restrictions put in place by the last administration restricting Puerto Rico's ability to access nearly $5 billion in funds, including a critical recovery and reconstruction needs.
And through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the President secured more than $2 billion to help Puerto Rico build back their infrastructure to be stronger and more resilient after -- ahead of future storms.
With today's visited -- visit, President Biden is making clear that supporting the people of Puerto Rico remains his priority.
Now I'll turn it over to FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, who was already on the ground in Puerto Rico earlier and can share more on the ongoing recovery efforts.
With that, I'm going to give you this spot.
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Yes, I was on the ground in Puerto Rico shortly after Hurricane Fiona made landfall. I was also on the ground a few weeks before that, checking on the recovery efforts from Hurricane Maria.
We have one very integrated team -- between the commonwealth, our FEMA family, as well as our federal partners -- working together to make sure that we are doing everything we can to continue the recovery process from Maria while we are still responding to and stabilizing the impacts that we're seeing from Hurricane Fiona.
We have over 900 personnel on the ground dedicated right now specifically to the ongoing efforts for Fionna, in addition to our staff that are continuing to support the recovery efforts from Maria.
The report that I got this morning was -- I believe it was 92 or 93 percent of the power has been restored on the island; 95 percent of the water has been restored on the island.
But we are working with them to drive to 100 percent; we know that's where we need to be. And we're working to get that done as quickly as possible.
So, I'm happy to take any questions.
Q: Do you have an estimate on when everybody on the island will have power and water again?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: I do not have an estimate. What I know is that we are working into some of the hardest-hit areas, and it's about getting to the homes that are in some of the mountainous regions where they have accessibility issues because so many roads were washed out, and it's getting to those house-by-house pieces now to make sure each house can receive power so we can then get to that 100 percent goal.
Q: You mentioned being on the ground earlier for Hurricane Maria. Do you have an assessment of how long it will take to really ensure that Puerto Rico is resilient to not only bounce back but sort of be in a pre-Hurricane Maria situation? Or -- you know, I know you guys have talked about "building back better," but how long of a timeline is this?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Yeah, our goal is that we don't get to a pre-Maria situation; that we're actually making them stronger, we're making them more resilient.
Some of these projects are very complex, right? And we want to -- we want to make sure that as we're going through the rebuilding process, we're taking the time to understand what it's going to take to make them more resilient.
Each project is going to take a different amount of time, and so it depends on the complexity of what we're talking about. But we're making good progress in those efforts for Maria. And we're going to continue to make progress as we now incorporate the recovery from Fiona.
Q: Can I just ask you one quick follow-up? On the resiliency of the grid, though -- in particular, the electrical grid -- can we talk about how long that'll take? And what does that mean? You talked about making -- creating the --
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Yeah, the resiliency of the electrical grid is a priority for this administration. We have funding available through our public assistance program. And you're going to hear the President announce later today some really aggressive initiatives to continue to help Puerto Rico restore their infrastructure but rebuild it in a way that makes them more resilient to future impacts from storms like Fiona.
Q: Apropos funding, how much money are we talking? Does -- will the --
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Which funding?
Q: Broadly, how much money will be required for Puerto Rico to recover from this storm?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: I don't have the total estimates for what's going to be required from Fiona. We're still doing the full damage assessment process. What I can tell you that I saw when I was on the ground: While we're restoring water, and 95 percent of the water is restored, some of that is temporary fixes, because we saw roads that were washed out and water lines -- distribution lines that have been completely damaged.
So they're going to have to figure out the extent of that damage for the permanent repairs, but we're doing temporary repairs to make sure we can get water to everybody in these communities while they're going through that. We still have to understand the extent of some of those really complex infrastructure impacts.
Again, they were in very mountainous communities, hard to access. It's going to be in the billions, though, and time to -- to fix that.
Q: That's what I was -- I just wanted to follow up on that, because I -- my understanding is, for Florida and South Carolina, we're talking about tens of billions. So the $60 million that is being announced today just doesn't seem like a drop in the bucket for what I suspect the island is going to need. Would you agree with that assessment?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Well, there's already other funding that's been available to the island. FEMA alone has authorized $9.5 billion to the commonwealth to restore their power grid from the impacts from Maria. It's going to take multiple different funding streams from the federal family to make sure that we're getting them to a place that they can be more resilient.
Q: Can you give us an update on the financial state of the National Flood Insurance Program, given that we're dealing with two hurricanes here simultaneously, and whether you'll need to ask Congress or whoever to increase its debt limit, given how much damage is being incurred?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Yeah, the financial solvency of the NFIP program is solid. We're able to meet the claims for the Write Your Own agents. We don't have a need to go ask for additional funding for that program.
Q: And I'm also wondering -- I mean, some of my colleagues talked to people in Puerto Rico on the ground who are saying, you know, "It has taken so long to rebuild after the 2017 storm, and sometimes we so often get left behind." I mean, what is your message to the people of Puerto Rico? What are some lessons that perhaps the federal government learned after Maria to rebuild Puerto Rico faster?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Yeah, I think there's a couple of things, right? So, after Maria, one of the things that we did is we embedded some of our staff on the island to continue to work on the preparedness measures for the commonwealth, as well as the municipalities, so we could make sure that we could respond more effectively if another event would happen.
Especially since they're still in the rebuilding stage and the restoration stage from Maria, we know that it creates additional complexities in the response. That proved to be just an incredibly valuable effort because the response was well integrated, was much better than what we saw during Maria. They worked together to make sure we got in there to better understand where the immediate needs were and start restoring power much more quickly than I think we did during Hurricane Maria.
What I would say is that our focus and our goal is, again, to continue to understand what needs to happen to help Puerto Ricans rebuild in a way that makes them more resilient. The efforts that we have put in place to understand what that's going to take has allowed us to go in and restore quickly. And that's what we're going to be able to do in future storms while they're continuing the restoration and the rebuilding process.
Q: And can I ask on -- oh, sorry, go ahead.
Q: Do you have an update on the vessel that was -- received the Jones Act waiver? Has the fuel -- the diesel fuel that was on that vessel, the BP vessel, been able to get to the island yet? Do you have any update on that?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: I do not have an update on that. I know that the Jones Act waiver was approved, making that available. If there is a need for fuel, I'm sure that we have it in there. I don't have a specific update on if it has.
Q: Do you have an updated death toll for the impact of Ian? I know there's been a lot of conflicting numbers flying around from local authorities, but does the federal government have an updated death toll in Florida?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: We refer to the state's numbers that they give out for the death toll, and so I would look at what the governor's office is putting out today.
Q: And can I ask, on Ian, if the federal government has a position on whether you think Lee County officials should have evacuated faster, earlier than less than 24 hours before the -- before the storm hit?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Yeah, what I'll say is: We knew that we were going to have widespread impacts as a result of this storm. We put in place, prior to landfall, the largest search and rescue capability staged in different parts of the state to make sure that we could augment the state capability and go in and start search and recovery efforts as soon as the storm passed.
They went in Thursday morning -- somewhere around 4:00 a.m. is what I'm told -- to begin those recovery efforts. As far as evacuation orders go, that is a state and local responsibility. We, as a federal government -- our role is to make sure we've got the resources positioned to go in and support life-saving as soon as we can.
Q: Can I ask a broad-brush question about both of these hurricanes? To what extent would you ascribe climate change as a reason for what's happening with these storms? And to what extent can places like Puerto Rico and these coastal states expect to just continue -- have to keep dealing with this for years and decades to come?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: You know, we're seeing without a doubt -- and you've heard me say this before -- an increase in the number of storms that are happening and the severity of storms.
I know that NOAA and other academic institutions will do some research to understand what impact climate change may have had on this -- these storms -- or these two storms. But we know the risk is changing.
And so, our focus has been to make sure that we are not basing all of our preparedness actions and our mitigation measures on the risks that we have faced in the past -- the historical risks -- but looking at modeling and potential impacts that we think we're going to see 5 and 10 years from now. So as we put in mitigation projects that help communities develop those projects, that they're taking into account what their future risk is going to be based on this new set of normal that we're seeing.
Q: The President said this morning, as he was heading out, that Puerto Rico hasn't been taken care of to the degree that they should be.
As this -- you know, since this -- this storm, in particular, like, what sort of direction has he given to you? Like how much does that reflect this idea that he feels like we've been behind in -- in helping or that they've been behind in coming back?
Like, what -- what are those conversations like where he's -- you know, where you're giving him updates and he's talking about sort of prioritizing it?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Yeah, I'll go back to -- just even when I first took over in this position, my first visit was to Puerto Rico to understand the challenges that they were facing with their recovery efforts and to make sure that they knew that this administration, the Biden-Harris administration, was there for them and that we were going to be able to support them.
After Hurricane Fiona, he directed me to go out there immediately following the storm to check on the response efforts. I went down into the Ponce area where we're going to be today. I met with local mayors. And what I can tell you is -- what they told me is they finally feel like this administration cares for them and that they are going to be there for them to support them through this response and this recovery effort.
That's at the direction of the President. He's very focused on making sure Puerto Ricans are taken care of.
Q: What have you heard from them about their sense of the prior administration's commitment, given, you know, we're on this anniversary of Donald Trump's trip down there -- obviously, infamous trip down there.
You know, what -- what are they telling you, not just on -- about your commitment, but the last administration's commitment?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Yeah, I'll just say: We're focused on helping Puerto Rico. We know that 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 to me -- me to do. And that's what I'm going to continue to do.
Q: Can I ask you -- in regards to Florida, there's been a lot of reporting about how the property insurance market in Florida is really in quite a sense of disarray. Do you anticipate that the federal government will need to step in to provide additional assistance to potentially bail out parts of the Florida insurance market?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: So, there's different types of insurance that individuals need for things like that -- property insurance that helps with wind damage and then flood damage. The flood piece is where the National Flood Insurance Program that falls under FEMA's purview comes into play.
I know what the state is doing is they're bringing in insurance villages in the different areas to help people manage their claims. We're going to be monitoring and working with them very closely to understand what the impact is and to ensure that we can give whatever support is needed for individuals.
We'll have to have a longer conversation about long-term impacts to the insurance industry.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Thank you.
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Thank you.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: All right. I'll do a few more minutes. These guys want to get back in their seats.
I do want to say something, and I said this at the top: When it comes to funding, yes, we are announcing $60 million for pecific [sic] -- specific pieces that we want to help Puerto Rico, but that's on top of the $2 billion that we -- that has already been allocated through the -- through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that the President secured to help Puerto Rico build their infrastructure to be stronger and more resilient.
So that's on top of that. And I know folks were asking. And then you heard the Administrator talk about the $9.5 billion that was just allocated from FEMA to deal with some infrastructure issues on the ground.
And, you know, I think you were asking this question, Chris. The last administra- -- administration, as I said at the top, restricted -- restricted ability to -- for Puerto Rico to access $5 billion in funds. And so, that's including for critical recovery and reconstruction needs. And so that's what we saw in the last -- the last administration.
If you think about where the President is going today, he's going to the most -- the hardest-hit area of Puerto Rico. And it is an area that presidents have not gone to before. And I think that shows the President and the -- and the First Lady's commitment to the people of Puerto Rico, to be able to go there to an area where, you know, people have been -- have lost almost everything. And so I just wanted to put a fine point on that.
But go ahead, guys, whoever wants to go.
Q: Hey, Karine. So, OPEC+ signaled over the weekend there could be a production cut at their upcoming meeting of up to a million barrels. Isn't that working at cross purposes from your goal of having low energy prices? And what, if anything, are you prepared to do in response?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So I've -- as I've said before, and as we've -- as many of us in the administration have said before, you know, we're not a party, as you know, to OPEC+, and I'm not going to comment on what may or may not happen.
I can say this: Our focus has been pretty -- pretty steadfast, which has been on taking every -- every step to ensure markets are sufficiently supplied to meet demand for a growing glo- -- growing global economy. And thanks to our efforts, we have seen some energy prices have declined sharply from their highs, and American consumers are paying far less at the pump.
And so, that's going to be our focus. Again, not going to comment on what may or may not happen. We'll let the meeting and -- and the folks --
Q: Are you worried that a production cut could increase prices?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Again, I don't want to get into hypotheticals here. I hear the -- I hear what you're saying. I understand that is what is predicted from this meeting. I believe the meeting is going to happen on Wednesday, but not going to get ahead of what the announcement could potentially be.
Again, we are not part of OPEC+. We are not members of OPEC+, and so I don't want to get ahead of what could potentially come out of that meeting.
Q: Does the White House have a reaction to the UK government's decision to change its mind on cutting top tax -- or taxes for top earners?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So as I've said before, we're just not going to comment on UK policies, process. That's not something that we're going to comment, at least I won't do that from here.
The UK is a close ally, and we work with them on a range of issues, including strengthening the global economy.
As always, we continue to monitor global financial markets. That's something that we keep a close eye on. And the President's economic team met with him most recently -- as you know, we -- we read -- we read that out -- last week to brief him on the latest developments, and we'll continue to brief the President regularly as -- as conditions clearly evolve.
But for our part, we're focused on bringing down prices, investing in the long term in our industrial policy infrastructure, and being fiscally disciplined.
And we believe that we are in a ston- -- a strong position -- the U.S. is in a strong position to navigate these global challenges. Again, you've heard us talk about the importance of the Infrastructure Reduction Act. This -- this play -- comes into play as we continue to lower prices. You've heard us talk about all the work that this President has done on lowering gas prices every day this summer.
And so, that's -- that's what we're focusing on, on what we can do to make sure that we give Americans a little bit more breathing room.
Q: Just one little follow-up on that. Has -- has the President's economic team been in touch with Prime Minister Truss's economic team about something that has clearly caused havoc in financial markets over the last week?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, one thing I can say is that, you know, we are in discussions, like we always are, with -- with the IMF and other partners on challenges in the global economy. I don't have any specific conversations as it relates to your question with our economic team speaking directly.
Q: Can you be more specific about the IMF piece?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I don't have more to add except that we are in -- we are -- you know, we tend to have regular conversations with the IMF.
But clearly, we -- you know, as I said, we're not going to -- I'm not going to comment on the UK policies. We are not involved in how they move forward with their policies. That is not something that we will -- that we are engaged in. They are a close ally, and I'll leave it there.
Q: Karine, will Governor DeSantis join President Biden in Florida on Wednesday?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, I don't have anything to read out on what that day is going to look like. Clearly, they have been in touch several times -- the President and Governor DeSantis. They see this -- this moment, dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, as one team. As you know, the Administrator was on the ground with him and his team, just a couple of days ago, assessing the damage. And so they are going to continue to stay in touch. We're going to continue our coordination.
I do want to say -- and I have said this before -- the coordination that you are seeing on the ground, that we're hearing on the ground, this rescue and search, is an unprecedented coordination. It involves several agencies just across the federal -- the federal government.
And we -- they have -- what we did and what the FEMA and her team did is that they pre-positioned people on the ground before the storm hit to make sure that there was water, generators, and food. And now you are seeing this -- this, again, unprecedented coordination with local -- with the local government and the state to make sure that we are -- we are there for the people of Florida.
And so, we'll have more to share on what that day is going to look like and who will be on the ground and who the President is going to be meeting on the ground, as well, on Wednesday.
Q: Do you anticipate the President making any other storm-related visits, like to South Carolina?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I don't have anything else to preview or share about any other specific visits. He is going to Florida, as we announced yesterday. I don't have anything else.
If we have more to -- more to share on a potential additional stop, we certainly will share that.
Q: Did the President get any additional briefings on the breach of the pipeline in the Baltic Sea over the weekend? And does he have any, you know, updated view on whether Russia might be behind the sabotage?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, we're -- I mean, we've been very clear that there's an investigation going on. We're going to let the investigation process move forward. It's going to take some time, as you've heard from myself, as you heard from Jake. And I don't have anything more to add to that piece.
Look, the President is regularly updated on foreign matters, as you know, through his -- with his national security team, but also his foreign policy team more broadly. I just don't have anything more to share.
Q: Did the President have any reaction to the Brazilian elections yesterday? Does he see this as an important runoff -- this runoff being an important moment for global democracies?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, on the particular elections from yesterday in Brazil, I will say the following here:
We congratulate the -- Brazil's people and institutions on holding a successful first-round election and support their free exercise of the right to choose their next leader. All available information indicates that the first round of elections was conducted in a free, fair, transparent, and credible manner with all relevant institutions operating in accordance with their constitutional role. And we share Brazil's confidence that the second will be conducted in the same way as well.
Q: And on Iran, there were reports of additional arrests in Iran overnight. And then the Ayatollah also came out saying, essentially, that these riots are the result of foreign intervention, specifically, I believe, citing the United States. And I wanted to get the administration's response.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So we're alarmed and appalled by reports of security authorities responding to university students' peaceful protests with violence and mass arrests. University students are the talented young people who should be the future of Iran. They are rightly engaged [enraged] by the death of Mahsa Amini, the Iranian government's treatment of women and girls, and the ongoing violent crackdown on peaceful protests.
This weekend's crackdowns are precisely the sort of behavior that drives Iran's talented young people to leave a country by the thousands to seek the dignity and opportunity elsewhere.
Go ahead. All right. Okay. We're getting a little bumpy. (Laughs.)
Q: (Inaudible) protests -- again, to confirm -- I know you've been asked this before, but you don't see it at all, I guess, posing any challenges to the ongoing nuclear negotiations around trying to renew the JCPOA?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: The JCPOA? Look, I mean, we have been -- we have concerns with Iran; we have said that before. But the JCPOA is the best way for us to address the nuclear problem that -- that we see. As long as we believe pursuing JCPOA talks is in the U.S. national security interest, we will do so.
And so, at the same time, we will continue to use other tools to address other problems with Iran's behavior, as we have. You've heard this from the National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, say just a couple of days ago that even though we are engaged in nuclear negotiations, we're not going to slow down one inch in our defense and advocacy for the rights of the women and the citizens of Iran. Even at the height of the Cold War, as President Reagan was calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire," he was also engaged in arms control talks because he knew that on this -- on the one hand, we had to push back vigorously against the repression of the Soviet Union. And at the same time, we had to protect and defend the security our -- our -- of ourselves, our allies, and our partners.
Q: Can I ask one follow-up question?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Sure.
Q: You mentioned the IMF, and that got my antenna up. Did the U.S. pressure the IMF to pressure the UK?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: No, not at all. Not at all. The reason I -- the only reason I brought it up: You asked me about specifically conver- -- our conversations of -- if our economic team has had conversations with the UK. And what I was saying is, basically, no, there's been no pressure -- so just to make that clear. But we are in regular conversations with the IMF. But there's been -- we have not been involved. We have not been engaged.
This is, again, UK's policy. We will not interfere or get involved in what another country's domestic policies are.
Q: And one other little issue. Republicans -- some Republicans criticized Vice President Harris's comments about the role of equity in responding to the storm -- the storms and rebuild. And their suggestion was that the Vice President is suggesting that people of color will get an advantage of some kind with the rebuilding efforts. To the extent that that needs to be clarified, can you clarify that?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Yes, I'm happy to clarify that. Thank you for asking the question.
So that is not what the Vice President said. The Vice President was clearly talking about long-term investment, not FEMA aid, for hurricane response efforts.
The Vice President and the President have been clear that the federal government has been and will continue to be there for all Americans recovering from these devastating storms, as we're seeing the President and the First Lady do today and as we'll see them do, clearly, in Florida on Wednesday.
We are committed to quickly getting resources to all communities impacted, period, full stop. But we also know that some people, particularly in lower-income communities, have a hard time accessing that help. That's why this administration has also made it a priority to remove barriers and ensure that everyone, regardless of their ZIP Code, can access federal resources. And that's what she was talking about.
All right. Thanks, everybody.
Q: Very quickly, just about Wednesday. Just very, very quickly, to follow up: You know, I think there's a lot of attention based on Biden and DeSantis's relationship, and I just -- you touched on it earlier. I just would love for you to describe the state of that relationship, given how often they've been in communication.
And then, additionally, the focus is Florida, the focus is recovery, but does the President plan to voice his displeasure with the migrant flights at all if he does come across DeSantis?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: (Inaudible) I was asked last week, I believe, if -- if that was discussed between the President and Governor DeSantis, and I said no. And you -- you basically said it in your question, which is: The focus is going to be on the people of Florida, getting that access that they need, getting the resources that they need.
Again, we are coordinating an unprecedented search -- search and rescue currently right now in Florida with -- with -- with just the whole kind of full force of the federal government.
And I'll say this: As the President has said, we are all one team. When it comes to Hurricane Ian, we will continue to work alongside the governor and local officials to support the people of Florida. That's what's going to matter when we go in Puerto Rico. It's going to be about the people of Puerto Rico and everything that we can do to get them back on their feet.
We're going to one of the -- the hardest-hit area from Hurricane Fiona. And so that's why the President is going to go there, to hear directly from them. And then, on Friday, we will do the same with the people of Florida.
1:01 P.M. EDT
Joseph R. Biden, Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/358195