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Biden visits Puerto Rico to assess damage from Hurricane Fiona

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

President Joe Biden visited Puerto Rico today with a promise for the many communities damaged by Hurricane Fiona.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We came here in person to show that we're with you. All of America is with you as you receive and recover and rebuild.

SUMMERS: That promise is already drawing comparisons to past disaster responses. NPR's Adrian Florido joins us from Puerto Rico's southern coast, where the president spoke. Adrian, what can you tell us about the president's visit today?

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Well, Juana, he landed here in the city of Ponce, which is one of the cities that was most damaged by Fiona. He got a briefing from local officials about the state of the island's recovery, and then he came to the main industrial port in Ponce and said that the federal government is committed to make sure that the U.S. territory recovers not only from the damage Fiona left, but also from Hurricane Maria, which hit five years ago.

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BIDEN: This latest storm dealt a serious blow to all - all the hard work that has been done since Maria. Roads and bridges built 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.

FLORIDO: The president highlighted the fact that the federal infrastructure bill signed earlier this year includes hundreds of millions of dollars for Puerto Rico, which he said it could use to strengthen its infrastructure against future storms.

SUMMERS: And Adrian, after Hurricane Maria, Congress passed billions of dollars in recovery funding, but Puerto Rico still has not gotten most of that money. Did the president have anything to say about those delays?

FLORIDO: He did acknowledge them, and he promised to work to speed that money up. He also pointed out that his administration has lifted the complex restrictions that the Trump administration had placed on some of that aid. Now, how much of a difference this has made, though, is hard to sort out, Juana, because the vast majority of the Maria recovery projects still haven't even broken ground.

SUMMERS: Hmm. Now, President Biden's trip comes five years to the day after former President Trump made a now-infamous trip to Puerto Rico after Maria. I have to imagine that was on some people's minds, yeah?

FLORIDO: It absolutely was. And the Biden administration clearly designed today to contrast with Trump's visit after Maria in 2017. During that visit, Donald Trump downplayed the severity of the tragedy. He complained about how much it was going to cost the federal government, and he oddly tossed paper towels into a crowd of residents. Many people here thought it was a humiliating experience. President Biden today struck a respectful tone, but it's worth noting that he did not visit any damaged communities before heading out. He went to a school, where volunteers were coordinating recovery efforts.

SUMMERS: OK. And Adrian, what has been the reaction there to President Biden's visit?

FLORIDO: Well, as is often the case, reaction has been mixed. Some people are pleased by the attention the president is bringing to Puerto Rico's needs after Fiona. Others are skeptical his visit will do much at all. After the president spoke, I spoke with Jose Luis Dalmau. He's the president of Puerto Rico's senate.

JOSE LUIS DALMAU: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: He said he is confident the president is going to fulfill his promises to help Puerto Rico rebuild. But he said the important thing is that the president do so quickly, before another storm comes around.

SUMMERS: Before another storm comes - that is NPR's Adrian Florido. Thank you so much.

FLORIDO: Thanks, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.