Joe Biden

Remarks on Hurricane Fiona Response and Recovery Efforts in Ponce, Puerto Rico

October 03, 2022

The President. Thank you. Well, my name is Joe Biden, and I don't want the headline to read "Biden Brings Storm to Puerto Rico." [Laughter] So I don't—I'm going to maybe have to cut this a little short.

Let me start off by saying that Jill and I—and thank you very much for that lovely introduction. Jill and I are—we're anxious to be here. You know, we—I come from a little State—the little State of Delaware. It's not like the Congresswoman from New York; she's from a big State.

But we have a very, in relative terms, large Puerto Rican population in Delaware—relative to our population. We have the eighth largest Black population in the country. And between all minorities, we have 20 percent of our State is minority.

And so I was sort of raised in the Puerto Rican community at home, politically. And so we—and we came here for a long time, both for business and pleasure, since you're part of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, and Delaware is as well. And I was chairman of the Judiciary Committee. I spent a lot of time in the northern part of the State.

But look, I—it's people like you who do so much for your community and are going to make such a big difference as Puerto Rico rebuilds. Thank you, Governor, for your partnership as we work together to help rebuild Puerto Rico. And I mean rebuild it all and rebuild it in a resilient way so you don't—when the storms come again, which they will, they're not having the damage they caused before.

And I want to thank the Members of Congress and local officials, community leaders that have joined us today.

Ever since the hurricane struck, Jill and I have had people in Puerto Rico on our minds and in our prayers. We came here in person to show that we're with you. America—all of America is with you as you receive and recover and rebuild. I'm confident to—I'm confident we're going to be able to do all you want, Governor, and I'm committed to this island.

Puerto Rico has been through so much in recent years: Hurricane Maria 5 years ago; a 6.4-magnitude earthquake 2 years ago. Folks slept outside for days worried about their homes would collapse on them if they went in. Then, COVID-19. And then, Fiona.

And yes, Puerto Rico is a strong place, and Puerto Ricans are strong people. But even so, you have had to bear so much and more than need be, and you haven't gotten the help in a timely way.

And this latest storm dealt a serious blow to all the hard work the—that have been done since Maria. Roads and bridges built out after Maria have been washed away again. Families who spent their savings to build new homes after losing their last ones have seen them flooded away. Crops decimated. Farms destroyed. Here in Ponce and communities nearby have hit—they've been hit the hardest. And in days—for days, people—people live without power, without water. Some still in that circumstance—no idea when it will be back again.

And for everyone—everyone who survived Maria, Fiona, it must have been an all-too-familiar nightmare. You know better than anyone that, over time, these losses add up. And so Puerto Ricans have lost loved ones in the storm and in the perilous disasters.

And the number—the number—can feel abstract sometimes when you hear a number, but every number is a person. Every life lived. We read the obituaries and remembrances, and they all feel like people we knew: doting grandparents, devoted parents, christened [cherished]* children, longtime neighbors, people who cared about their community and made a difference. And they will not be forgotten.

And then, through these disasters, so many people have been displaced from their homes, lost their jobs and savings or suffered injuries, often unseen, but many times seen. Yet somehow, the people of Puerto Rico keep getting back up with resilience and determination. Quite frankly, it's pretty extraordinary, when you look at it from afar. And you deserve every bit of help your country can give you.

That's what I'm determined to do, and that's what I promise you. After Maria, Congress approved billions of dollars for Puerto Rico, much of it not having gotten here initially. We're going to make sure you get every single dollar promised. And I'm determined to help Puerto Rico build faster than in the past and stronger and better prepared for the future.

And that's why I approved the emergency declaration in Puerto Rico before the hurricane—Governor, you remember my calling you—before the hurricane made landfall, to deliver immediate Federal funding to shelter people and provide a sense of support.

Just a few days later, I approved an expedited major disaster declaration. That means the Federal Government will cover 100 percent of the cost to clear debris and carry out search and rescue and continue to shelter people.

It also means homeowners, renters, business owners are eligible to apply for Federal help to recover damage, losses caused by Hurricane Fiona. The Federal Government is going to provide individual assistance for up to $37,900 for essential home repairs and another $37,900 for lost property, as the law calls for, like a car or a refrigerator.

Additionally, we've deployed more than 1,200 personnel from FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency. They include search-and-rescue teams to assist survivors and power restoration experts.

Power is now back, as you pointed out, Governor, at 92 percent—92 percent of the island, and water is back in 95 percent of the island, thanks in part to the dedicated IBEW workers and Federal support staff. And now we have to get to 100 percent.

And here at this facility, you can see some of the generators from FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers that we're transporting to places that still don't have power. Here—here—they're loaded onto trucks and brought to locations in hospitals and shelters, paired with fuel trucks so generators can be gassed up on site.

My administration is also providing financial assistance to help families and individuals right away. Many families are scrambling to pay their bills right now, to fill up their gas tank, to put food on the table. They can register at FEMA [for]* cash assistance for 700 bucks to help cover the essentials for just a little while.

So far, nearly 200,000 households across Puerto Rico have received this cash assistance. Seven hundred dollars won't replace what you lost—not even close—but it can help take care of some of the little basics while you catch your breath and get back on your feet.

And FEMA has made crisis counselors available when you're—whether you're a survivor or a first responder. If you need help or just someone to talk to, people are here for you. The hotline number is 800—800-981-0023. I'll say it again: 800-981-0023. Don't be embarrassed to call. Whether you're Spanish- or English-speaking, counselors will be standing by to help you.

At times like these, Americans come together, and I'm grateful for our personnel at FEMA and other agencies for the hard work these past few weeks. Many of our FEMA staff, as been pointed out, are from Puerto Rico or are Puerto Rican. They've been working 24/7 to get help to people across the island while also scrambling to help their own families and neighbors.

I want to recognize the local first responders, including Puerto Rican National Guard who have been working around the clock—and I mean it, literally—around the clock. They've been through a lot the past 5 years.

I want to applaud the Red Cross volunteers who came as far—from as far away as California, Louisiana, Minnesota, Texas, to help however they can. And New York sent not only a Congresswoman, one of the most—Congresswoman in the Congress, but State troopers and emergency responders. I don't think you're going to be staying the whole time, are you?

Anyway, all kidding aside, New Jersey sent their All-Hazards Incident Management Teams trained for hurricane responses. These States are home to two of the largest Puerto Rican populations in the United States, New York and New Jersey. And their sisters and brothers in Puerto Rico needed them, and they answered the call.

Most of all, I want to recognize the heroism and selflessness of so many people across Puerto Rico. The main story that has been reported is the storm. But there's another story: what ordinary people did when the storm hit.

Literally, the day after the hurricane—the day after—churches and community organizations opened a network of kitchens across the island to cook hot food for anyone who needed it. Folks delivered food to the elderly who were housebound. They started their generators with—they shared their generators with neighbors who had medicine that needed to be refrigerated. They organized activities for kids to give their exhausted parents a break.

They arranged canvases [caravans]* to bring food, water, and other supplies and commodities—and to communities cut short as a consequence of landslide and flooding that couldn't be reached. And during the storm, when the waters were rising, people went to extraordinary lengths to help each other—help each other survive.

We've seen people using a raft and a boat tied to a rope to brave the raging waters and rescue neighbors trapped in their homes. You know, they aren't paratroopers or search-and-rescue professionals; they're neighbors. They just regular folks ready and willing to do whatever they could do when their help was needed, when the neighbor was in trouble. And thanks to them, all the people of Puerto Rico, this recovery from Fiona is underway.

I'm encouraged by all the stories [stores]* that are—that are opening up, the hospitals that they kept running, the supply chains that held steady. And the debris has already begun to be cleared on roads across the island. And we will continue the debris coverage.

Still, we have to do more. We have to ensure that when the next hurricane strikes, Puerto Rico is ready. Today I'm announcing more than $60 million in funding to help coastal areas in Puerto Rico become better prepared for the storm.

For example, we can create a flood warning system to help shore up levees and floodwalls. In addition, there's nearly $700 million in infrastructure investments in Puerto Rico that have already been announced since I signed the bipartisan infrastructure law last November.

For example, we've awarded $90 million to upgrade PR-2 highway. And we've announced $163 million dollars to begin construction on a canal to restore —help me with the pronunciation.

Governor Pedro R. Pierluisi of Puerto Rico. Martín Peña. Martín Peña.

The President. Martín Peña, the—that entire ecosystem. And we're going to clean up polluted waters and restore mitigation habits—mangrove habitats and bring back marine life.

And you're going to see investments like these increasing significantly in the months ahead. We're investing in Puerto Rico's roads, bridges, public transit, ports, airports, water safety, and high-speed internet.

We know that the climate crisis and more extreme weather are going to continue to hit this island and hit the United States overall. And as we rebuild, we have to ensure that we build it to last. We're particularly focused on the power grid. This year, today, Puerto Rico has received $4 million to help make the power grid more resilient. That number is going to go up.

As we conveyed to the Governor, I'm ready to deploy and expedite more resources from the Department of Energy and other Federal agencies, not just—I don't usually talk this fast, but it looks like it's moving quickly—to help transform the entire system so Puerto Rico—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.

That includes minigrids, which you can begin to deploy soon so we are less dependent on transmission lines across long distances, and more redundancy when the storms hit. The goal is lower energy bills and more reliable power for Puerto Rican households.

Additionally, I've asked the Secretary of Energy, Jennifer Granholm, who is a first-rate person, to lead a supercharged effort across the entire Federal Government. She is going to be put in—she's going to put in place the Puerto Rican Grid Recovery and Modernization team to bring to bear all the Federal resources and technical assistance and additional support for Puerto Rico.

And we'll help as you work to repair your grid quickly and drive decisive progress on the game plan for Puerto Rico's clean energy transformation.

You know, I also know many people in Puerto Rico have many family friends and friends in Florida. Your hearts are with them right now, and their hearts are with you. Jill and I will be in Florida on Wednesday. And as I've made clear: At times like these, our Nation comes together, put aside our difference—our political differences, and get to work. We show up when we're needed. Because if we lost our home, if we lost a loved one, we'd hope that people would show up for us as well.

And I want the people of Puerto Rico to know I'm committed to—my entire administration is committed to—standing with you every step of the way as long as it takes.

At the White House reception honoring Hispanic History Month, a U.S. Army chaplain, a Catholic priest, proud son of Puerto Rico, offered a prayer for all those who suffered through the hurricane, including Puerto Rico. Here's what he said. He said, "Give us generous hearts that we may continue to use our gifts to support them."

Well, the people of Puerto Rico have generous hearts. And that's what they get through this. We're returning generosity. And that's the generous hearts that the rest of the country are going to make sure we continue to provide.

But I want to say it again: We are not leaving here, as long as I'm President, until everything—I mean this sincerely—until every single thing that we can do is done.

So God bless you all and for—and all of you who are hurting. And may God protect our troops and all those brave souls that risked their lives to help others survive this tragedy.

And I usually don't quite talk this fast, but it looks like we made it. [Laughter] Thank you very much.

Let me—I'll bring up the—do you mind, Gov? I was up in New York with the mayor and with the Governor. And what they wanted to talk to me about? They wanted to talk to me about Puerto Rico.

Representative Nydia M. Velázquez. Ah, you see?

The President. No, remember we sat there?

Rep. Velázquez. Yes. Yes.

The President. And so it is one of the best Congresswomen in the Congress—Congresspersons in the entire Congress. And she's—are you—were you born here?

Rep. Velázquez. Yes, I was born here.

The President. I——

Rep. Velázquez. And my family—my entire family—is here.

The President. Is here? All right. I hope I don't get you in trouble——

Rep. Velázquez. Nine brothers and sisters.

The President. Nine brothers and sisters? Well, God bless you. I tell you what—my mother used to think that anybody who had that many children—we only had four—she'd say: "No purgatory for Mom. Straight to Heaven."

Rep. Velázquez. Thank you.

The President. Straight to Heaven.

Rep. Velázquez. Thank you.

The President. Anyway——

Rep. Velázquez. Thank you for being here.

The President. Thank you.

Rep. Velázquez. We love you.

The President. Thanks, everybody. We're going to get this done. We really are.

NOTE: The President spoke at 3:14 p.m. at the Port of Ponce. In his remarks, he referred to Maritzaida Pacheco Cosme, an employee of Centro Sor Isolina Ferré Aguayo School in Ponce, who introduced the President; Lt. Col. Alan M. Irizarry, USA, garrison chaplain, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall; Mayor Eric Adams of New York City; and Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul of New York. He also referred to his sister Valerie Biden Owens and brothers James B. and Francis W. Biden.

* White House correction.

Joseph R. Biden, Remarks on Hurricane Fiona Response and Recovery Efforts in Ponce, Puerto Rico Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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