President Biden traveled Monday to Puerto Rico to survey hurricane damage, meet with families and announce $60 million in emergency aid to prepare the island for future storms.
Mr. Biden’s trip comes two weeks after Hurricane Fiona ravaged the island. As of Monday, 100,000 people are still without power because of storm damage.
After receiving a briefing from civil leaders about Fiona’s aftermath, Mr. Biden announced a new round of funding for the island.
The aid will be used to shore up levees, strengthen flood walls and create new flood warning systems to prepare Puerto Ricans for future threats. It will come from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that Congress approved last year.
“So many people have been displaced from their homes, lost their jobs and savings, or suffered injuries, often unseen, but many times unseen. Yet somehow the people of Puerto Rico keep getting back up with resilience and determination. You deserve every bit of help your country can give you and that’s what I’m determined to do,” Mr. Biden said in remarks from Ponce, Puerto Rico.
That money is in addition to the $1.3 billion released by the Biden administration in February 2021 to help protect Puerto Rico against severe storms.
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The administration’s aid package has raised concerns that the money may not get to those who desperately need it, given the island’s history of corruption.
“It’s hard to be confident and hard to be positive after Hurricane Maria and the earthquakes because of the corruption. I’m not confident that the people who’ve been affected the most will receive the help that they need,” said Jose Atiles, a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign professor who studies crime and sociology in Puerto Rico.
During his remarks, Mr. Biden acknowledged that aid has often been derailed in the past and vowed to ensure the funds won’t be misused.
“We’re going to make sure you get every single dollar promised,” Mr. Biden said.
Fury erupted in 2020 over the government’s mishandling of disaster aid after a spate of earthquakes and the discovery of unused supplies dating back to Hurricane Maria, which struck the island in 2017, sitting in a government-run warehouse.
The warehouse was filled with expired baby food, expired water, blue tarps, gas stoves, diapers, cots, air mattresses, and sheets, which sat untouched even as residents of storm-ravaged communities had to sleep outside.
Wanda Vazquez, the former governor of Puerto Rico, was arrested by the FBI in August on corruption charges. The Justice Department accuses her of accepting bribes from a campaign donor while in office and appointing a government official at the donor’s request in exchange for financing her campaign.
Ms. Vazquez has insisted she hasn’t committed any crimes.
Mr. Atiles said since 2020, the Puerto Rican government has imposed some strict oversight measures to prevent corruption, but that has slowed down distributing aid to suffering citizens.
He added that most of the corruption happens during the procurement process, when businesses are bidding for contracts to rebuild ravaged communities.
Mr. Biden also pledged to shore up Puerto Rico’s power grid, which got knocked out by Hurricane Fiona, leaving more than 100,000 customers still without power. Initially, the storm cut power to nearly all of the island’s 1.5 million electrical customers while thousands more lost access to water service.
Before the storm hit, there was widespread frustration with the LUMA, a private company that was awarded a $1.5 billion contract last year to take over the power grid. Puerto Rico switched to a private company after decades of neglect and corruption that hampered the system when it was publicly run.
Congress has allocated roughly $28 billion to shore up the grid, but the Puerto Rican government has only spent about $5.3 billion, or 19% of the funds.
Mr. Biden pledged to deploy the Department of Energy and other federal agencies to make sure Puerto Ricans can keep power when severe storms hit.
“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,” he said.