White House rushes to help Puerto Rico during fragile recovery

The devastation in Puerto Rico has so far sparked a quick response from Washington, but the federal government’s effectiveness is poised to be tested by the territory’s structural issues that remain fragile exactly five years after Hurricane Maria wrecked the island.

Hurricane Fiona again knocked out power island-wide and caused landslides, flooding, and destroyed infrastructure, sights that are all too familiar for Puerto Rico after Maria in 2017.

“It wasn’t as destructive because there wasn’t as much wind, but there was a lot of flooding,” said Puerto Rico Health Secretary Carlos Mellado.

“It affected a lot of places that flooded where typically there is no flooding.”

Fiona was a tropical storm when it hit the island, growing into a category one hurricane during its path over Puerto Rico. President Biden issued an emergency declaration hours before the storm was upgraded Sunday morning.

While the flooding, power and water outages and landslides present a very real danger to an already-traumatized population, Fiona pales in comparison to the sheer destruction of María, which struck with 200 mile-per-hour winds.

Still, Fiona dumped 25 to 27 inches of rain on the island, the equivalent of 1.1 million Olympic-sized swimming pools, compared to about 32 inches during María.

Biden activated emergency funds after Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi (D) declared a state of emergency. The White House has not yet said if the president will visit Puerto Rico, since he returned to the U.S. after a short trip to London for the queen’s funeral on Monday and then left for the United Nations in New York on Tuesday.

In a call with Pierluisi during his flight back from London, Biden and the governor discussed the immediate needs of Puerto Rico, including federal support to the island. 

At the cabinet level, federal officials contacted their Puerto Rican counterparts, including Mellado, who coordinated with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.

Biden said there are over 300 federal personnel already working to assist and, in the coming days as damage assessments are conducted, the number of support personnel will increase “substantially.” Meanwhile, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell traveled to Puerto Rico on Tuesday. 

The administration’s efforts so far are a stark contrast to that of former President Trump’s response to Maria, which was marked by a slow deployment of aid and disbursement of funds for reconstruction projects. A trip to the island by Trump was overtaken by images of him throwing rolls of paper towels at a group of people at a relief center.

At the time, Democrats blasted the Trump administration for what they saw as an inadequate response to helping a U.S. terrority. 

“As many of you remember, Maria exposed the weaknesses of the infrastructure on the island, and the callousness. Remember the paper towels, the callousness of the federal response by the Trump administration,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) at an event observing the five-year anniversary of María in the Capitol Tuesday.

Still, in the first days after María hit, the Trump White House telegraphed an intention to quickly respond.

“I’m not going to defend Trump,” said Carlos Mercader, a political consultant who in 2017 was heading the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, the territory’s office in Washington.

“From the start, I had conversations with the president. I wasn’t even the governor and I talked to the president twice, and the governor talked to him about four times,” said Mercader.

But Mercader said Trump himself and his top officials – “[then-director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick] Mulvaney was a despot” –  blocked relief and recovery funds with red tape, implementing accounting processes designed to slow disbursements to the island.

“Having said that, there was communication, there was help, what happened is nobody was ready for a hurricane like María,” said Mercader.

Still, Trump’s reluctance to release funds aggravated conditions on the ground, drawing condemnation, and the White House was further criticized after Trump celebrated the federal government’s reaction to Maria as an unsung success.

“I think in general, their message is that we’re more competent and this falls into that category and they will likely not follow the same playbook,” Ivan Zapien, a Democratic lobbyist and former executive director at the Hispanic Leadership Council of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), said of the Biden White House.

Biden’s response will be watched by voters, especially Hispanic voters, who are being aggressively courted by Republicans ahead of the midterms.

“I think it’s critically important that he respond effectively and aggressively just overall to show voters that his administration can get the job done. And I do think that many families and friends and particularly the state of Florida, where there’s big Puerto Rican communities, will be paying attention,” Zapien said.

In large part driven by the difficulties of reconstruction after María, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida, changing that state’s electoral landscape.

While many recent arrivals are reluctant to participate in elections – particularly midterms – a high diaspora turnout in Central Florida could shift the balance for statewide races.

The Biden administration’s disaster response started on the right foot, but Puerto Rico’s myriad structural issues could complicate the path forward.

Mellado said when he talked to the head of FEMA in Puerto Rico to ask for a power generator he “immediately” got one. He  said most hospitals have working power generators, a massive upgrade from five years ago when some health centers were left without power for months.

But Puerto Rico’s health system is still underfunded, as the territory receives only a portion of the Medicare and Medicaid funds it would receive if it were funded on parity with the states.

While Mellado said there are funds coming to cover costs of treating certain diseases, including Zika,  expected to spread in coming weeks, he’s concerned about longer term prospects.

“What I’m worried about is the long term access to Medicaid, which would help us because we’ve had many delays in identifying patients and giving them adequate treatment,” he added.

But perhaps Puerto Rico’s biggest structural deficiency is its power grid, a jury-rigged system with 1950s technology that completely collapsed after María and has not yet been fully rebuilt.

The power grid has been managed by a private entity since June 2021 and its stability is a contentious topic of debate on the island, where residents have pushed back against privatization.

The hurricane and island-wide blackout it caused raises more tensions over the U.S. territory’s infrastructure because it appears to be just as fragile in the five years since the last devastating hurricane.

Ismael Arciniegas Rueda, a senior economist at the policy research organization RAND, argued that not everything Puerto Rico wanted to do to strengthen the infrastructure could have been done in five years.

“Fixing the problem in Puerto Rico that we had takes time,” he said. “It takes a long time to move and change the design of the grid that Puerto Rico had that was kind of centralized, to a more decentralized system that might be more resilient to these kind of problems, hurricanes but also to earthquakes.”

But civil society in Puerto Rico is impatient after years of power grid mismanagement, and a privatization process that was closely linked to the island’s debt restructuring.

“Five years ago when Hurricane Maria hit, we were talking about how unprepared Puerto Rico was, how the electrical grid could not sustain a hit from a hurricane, and how the debt crisis of Puerto Rico was taking money away from the island’s recovery.” said Julio Lopez Varona, co-chief of campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy.

“Puerto Ricans are in a place of distrust, sadness and frustration because we know there were conscious decisions made to pay the debt while they’re closing hospitals and schools. We know that there are millionaires coming here every year who don’t have to deal with these direct effects of climate change,” said Lopez Varona.

Meanwhile, the White House touted Biden’s focus on infrastructure throughout his administration to highlight the federal response to Hurricane Fiona. 

And, it took a stab at Trump for his attempt to implement his own infrastructure policy.

“We’ve heard from the last administration—it was a joke about how we were going to improve our infrastructure. This is a president, along with Congress, that made it happen because of his leadership,” White House press secretary Karine Jean Pierre said.

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