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Biden pledge in Puerto Rico contrasts with prior Trump effort

New aid for rebuilding follows lifting of restrictions on past awards

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden listen to Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro R. Pierluisi during a briefing on the damage and recovery efforts from Hurricane Fiona at the Port of Ponce in Ponce, Puerto Rico, on Monday.
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden listen to Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro R. Pierluisi during a briefing on the damage and recovery efforts from Hurricane Fiona at the Port of Ponce in Ponce, Puerto Rico, on Monday. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

President Joe Biden’s visit to Puerto Rico on Monday in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane brought back memories of a similar trip by his predecessor, former President Donald Trump. But this was entirely different.

“The people of Puerto Rico are very grateful for your steadfast support and highly appreciate your visit, particularly as we recover from Hurricane Fiona,” Gov. Pedro R. Pierluisi said as he introduced Biden at the Port of Ponce on Monday. “I must highlight that this visit is not an isolated incident; it is yet another example of your commitment to the well-being of the American citizens of Puerto Rico.”

Pierluisi, a former resident commissioner who caucused with the Democrats in Congress, praised what he described as the Biden administration’s “concrete actions” to assist Puerto Rico since taking office.

“Thank you, governor, for your partnership as we help rebuild Puerto Rico, and I mean rebuild it all,” Biden said. “And rebuild it in a resilient way so you know when the storms come again, which they will, they’re not having the damage they caused before.”

During an October 2017 visit to the island, Trump famously threw paper towels into a crowd at a relief center near San Juan. He was also quoted telling local officials “you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack,” because of the need for disaster relief after hurricanes Irma and Maria battered the island in quick succession that September.

The Trump administration then imposed a series of rather onerous requirements for Puerto Rico to access post-disaster assistance for rebuilding, including a demand that the island’s government not pay contractors a $15 minimum wage.

Deanne Criswell, the current Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, sought to focus on the path forward for recovery from last month’s Hurricane Fiona, which hit while rebuilding from Maria was still ongoing.

“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,” Criswell told reporters traveling to the island territory aboard Air Force One. “That’s what the president has directed to me — me to do, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, briefing reporters alongside Criswell, spoke briefly about policy changes by the Biden administration to make it easier for Puerto Rico to access relief dollars.

“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 … critical recovery and reconstruction needs,” Jean-Pierre said. “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.”

Biden was announcing more than $60 million in assistance from last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law to support construction of additional flood protections and warning systems in Puerto Rico. That was a slice of a much larger announcement Monday from the Army Corps of Engineers for nearly $800 million in support for flood control and supply chain resilience nationwide.

“These critical investments in flood mitigation and supply chain resilience from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will mean safer, stronger communities that are more resilient to the impacts of climate change, including places like Jackson, Mississippi and Puerto Rico that have experienced recent extreme weather events,” OMB Director Shalanda Young said in a statement.

But that roughly $60 million was just a small piece of the billions in assistance for Puerto Rico, Criswell emphasized.

“FEMA alone has authorized $9.5 billion to the Commonwealth to restore their power grid from the impacts from Maria,” the FEMA administrator said. “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.”

During his remarks, Biden said his tour of storm-damaged areas will take him to Florida on Wednesday to see the devastation left by Hurricane Ian. He also he noted the large Puerto Rican population of the Sunshine State.

In Puerto Rico, the governor is aligned with Biden politically, and that’s not the case in Florida with potential 2024 opponent Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in charge.

“I also know many people in Puerto Rico have many family … and friends in Florida. Their 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 differences — our political differences — and get to work,” Biden said. “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.”

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