Biden Vows Government Won't Walk Away From Storm-Struck Puerto Rico

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Biden Vows Government Won't Walk Away From Storm-Struck Puerto Rico
More than 60% of power customers remained without energy on Thursday, and a third of customers were without water.

President Joe Biden said Thursday the full force of the federal government is ready to help Puerto Rico recover from the devastation of Hurricane Fiona, while Bermuda and Canada's Atlantic provinces prepared for a major blast from the Category 4 storm.

Speaking at a briefing with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials in New York, President Biden said, "We're all in this together."

President Biden noted that hundreds of FEMA and other federal officials are already on the ground in Puerto Rico, where Fiona caused an island-wide blackout.

More than 60% of power customers remained without energy on Thursday, and a third of customers were without water — and local officials admitted they could not say when service would be fully restored.

President Biden said his message to the people of Puerto Rico who are still hurting from Hurricane Maria five years ago is: "We're with you. We're not going to walk away."

That seemed to draw a contrast with former President Donald Trump, who was widely accused of an inadequate response to Maria, which left some Puerto Ricans without power for 11 months.

Hundreds of people in Puerto Rico remained cut off by road four days after the hurricane ripped into the U.S. territory, and frustration was mounting for people like Nancy Galarza, who tried to signal for help from work crews she spotted in the distance.

"Everyone goes over there," she said pointing toward crews at the bottom of the mountain who were helping others also cut off by the storm. "No one comes here to see us. I am worried for all the elderly people in this community."

At least five landslides cover the narrow road to her community in the steep mountains around the northern town of Caguas. The only way to reach the settlement is to climb over thick mounds of mud, rock and debris left by Fiona, whose floodwaters shook the the foundations of nearby homes with earthquake-like force.

"The rocks sounded like thunder," recalled Vanessa Flores, a 47-year-old school janitor. "I've never in my life heard that. It was horrible."

At least one elderly woman who relies on oxygen was evacuated on Thursday by city officials who were working under a pelting rain to clear paths to the San Salvador community.

Ramiro Figueroa, 63, said his 97-year-old bedridden father refused to leave home despite insistence from rescue crews. Their road was blocked by mud, rocks, trees and his sister's pickup, which was washed down the hill during the storm.

National Guard troops and others brought water, cereal, canned peaches and two bottles of apple juice.

"That has helped me enormously," Figueroa said as he scanned the devastated landscape, where a river had changed its course and tore up the community.

At least eight of 11 communities in Caguas are completely isolated, said Luis González, municipal inspector of recovery and reconstruction. It's one of at least six municipalities where crews have yet to reach some areas. People there often depend on help from neighbors, as they did following Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm in 2017 that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Miguel Veguilla said that in Maria's aftermath he used picks and shovels to clear debris. But Fiona was different, unleashing huge landslides.

"I cannot throw those rocks over my shoulder," he said.

Like hundreds of thousands in Puerto Rico, Veguilla has no water or electricity service, but said there is a natural water source nearby.

Puerto Rico's government said some 62% of 1.47 million customers remained without power Thursday. A third of customers, or more than 400,000, did not yet have water service.

"Too many homes and businesses are still without power" President Biden said in New York, adding that additional utility crews were set to travel to the island to help restore power in the coming days.

The executive director of Puerto Rico's Electric Energy Authority, Josué Colón, told a news conference that areas less affected by Fiona should have electricity by Friday morning. But officials declined to say when power would be restored to the hardest-hit places and said they were working first to get energy to hospitals and other key infrastructure.

Neither local nor federal government officials had provided an overall estimate of damage from the storm, which dropped up to 30 inches of rain in some areas.

Fiona so far has been blamed for at least two deaths in Puerto Rico.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.