Biden: US won’t run away from storm-ravaged Puerto Rico

SAN SALVADOR, Puerto Rico (AP) — President Joe Biden said on Thursday that the full force of the federal government stands ready to help Puerto Rico recover from the devastation of Hurricane Fiona as Bermuda and Canada’s Atlantic provinces prepare for a major explosion of the Category 4 storm.

During a briefing with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials in New York, Biden said, “We’re all in this together.”

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

More than 60% of power customers were without power on Thursday and a third of customers were without water — and local officials admitted they couldn’t say when service would be fully restored.

Biden said his message to the people of Puerto Rico, who were still injured by Hurricane Maria five years ago, is: “We are with you. We are not going to run away.”

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

The hurricane was expected to still be of Category 4 strength overnight as it passed close to Bermuda, where authorities opened shelters and announced schools and offices would close Friday.

Fiona’s outer tires already reached British territory on Thursday afternoon.

It was expected to still be a large and dangerously powerful storm when it hit Canada’s Atlantic provinces, likely late Friday, as a post-tropical cyclone.

“It’s going to be a storm that everyone will remember when it’s all said and done,” said Bob Robichaud, a preparedness meteorologist at the Canadian Hurricane Center.

Hundreds of people in Puerto Rico were cut off from the road four days after the hurricane swept into US territory, and frustration mounted for people like Nancy Galarza, who tried to signal help from work crews she saw in the distance.

“Everyone goes there,” she said, pointing to the crews at the bottom of the mountain helping others who were also cut off by the storm. “Nobody comes here to see us. I am concerned for all the elderly in this community.”

At least five landslides cover the narrow road to her community in the steep mountains surrounding the northern city of Caguas. The only way to reach the settlement is to climb over thick mounds of mud, rocks and rubble left behind by Fiona, whose floodwaters shook the foundations of nearby houses with an earthquake-like force.

“The rocks sounded like thunder,” recalls Vanessa Flores, a 47-year-old school janitor. ‘I’ve never heard that in my life. It was horrible.”

At least one elderly woman who is dependent on oxygen was evacuated Thursday by city officials who were working under torrential rain to clear paths to San Salvador’s community.

Ramiro Figueroa, 63, said his bedridden 97-year-old bedridden father refused to leave the house despite the urging of rescue teams. Their way was blocked by mud, rocks, trees and his sister’s pickup truck, which had been washed down the hill in the storm.

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

“That helped me a lot,” Figueroa said as he scanned the devastated landscape, where a river had changed its course, tearing the community apart.

At least eight of the 11 communities in Caguas are completely isolated, said Luis González, municipal inspector for rehabilitation and reconstruction. It is 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 after Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm in 2017 that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Miguel Veguilla said he used picks and shovels to clear debris in Maria’s wake. But Fiona was different and caused massive landslides.

“I can’t throw those stones over my shoulder,” he said.

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

Danciel Rivera, 31, arrived in rural Caguas with a church group and tried to bring a little cheer by dressing as a clown.

“That’s very important at these times,” he said, pointing out that people never fully recovered from Hurricane Maria. “A lot of PTSD has reared its head these days.”

His huge clown shoes squeaked through the mud as he greeted people, whose faces lit up when they smiled at him.

The Puerto Rico government said about 62% of its 1.47 million customers were without power on 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,” Biden said in New York, adding that additional utilities would travel to the island to help restore power in the coming days.

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

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

The U.S. center said Fiona had maximum sustained winds of 215 km/h in the late afternoon. It was centered about 280 miles (455 kilometers) west-southwest of Bermuda, heading north-northeast at 20 mph (31 kph).

Hurricane-force winds extend outwards as far as 70 miles (110 kilometers) from the center, and tropical gale force winds extend outwards as far as 205 miles (335 kilometers).

Bermuda Prime Minister David Burt tweeted out urging residents to “take care of yourself and your family. Let’s all remember to check and look out for your seniors, family and neighbors. Watch your safety.”

The Canadian Hurricane Center issued a hurricane watch over vast coastal areas of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island.

Hurricanes in Canada are somewhat rare, in part because once the storms reach colder waters, they lose their primary source of energy. and become extratropical. Those cyclones may still have hurricane strength, but now have a cold rather than warm core and no visible eye. Their shape can also be different. They lose their symmetrical shape and can look more like a comma.

Fiona is responsible for at least five deaths so far – two in Puerto Rico, two in the Dominican Republic and one in the French overseas department of Guadeloupe.

Fiona also hit the Turks and Caicos Islands on Tuesday, but officials there reported relatively minor damage and no deaths.

Associated Press writers Zeke Miller in Washington, Seth Borenstein in New York, Rob Gillies in Toronto, and Maricarmen Rivera Sánchez in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.