The White House has increased aid to Puerto Rico on the five-year anniversary of the hurricane

The Biden White House is mobilizing a surge of support after Hurricane Fiona brought torrential rains, severe flooding, mudslides and blackouts. The aftershocks of 2017, when Maria killed more than a couple thousand and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage, are still haunting local residents trying to rebuild. Some whose homes were flooded may be able to start over.

“It won’t stop. It’s been a disaster,” Robert Little, the island’s Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinator, told CNN’s Erin Burnett as the government’s relief effort began to accelerate. “The FEMA team has been leaning forward since we got the call to come down here.”

The effort builds on an improved federal presence on the island since Maria, when the Trump administration was heavily criticized for its haphazard and self-indulgent response as technicians struggled to restore the power grid for months despite the tragedy. Although often ignored in Washington, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens living in a U.S. island territory and eligible for assistance from the federal government.

Detailed damage assessments from this storm were still being made early Tuesday, but some residents said the massive flooding and mudslides were reminiscent of the devastation caused by Maria.

The arrival of the latest hurricane was particularly cruel, as many Puerto Ricans have been living through difficult times since 2017, struggling with grim chapters of storms, earthquakes, pandemics and political turmoil.

“This is more than destruction,” former San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room.”

Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi told CNN’s Anderson Cooper Monday night that while most of the damage five years ago was caused by high winds, the problem this time is the volume of precipitation. But while the power grid was repaired after Maria, it hasn’t improved, he said.

Still, Pierluisi added, “Puerto Rico is much better prepared now than it was five years ago when Hurricane Maria hit us. For example, FEMA now has four warehouses located throughout Puerto Rico, instead of one.”

“We’re only halfway back”

Millions of residents lost power when Fiona entered. And after passing through the Dominican Republic, where it left 1 million customers without water, it is now a Category 2 hurricane that will pass near the Turks and Caicos on Tuesday.

At least two people have died in Puerto Rico as a result of Fiona, Pierluisi’s spokesman told CNN. One was a 58-year-old man who was swept away by a river. Another man died when his generator caught fire while trying to fill it with petrol.

The conditions are difficult because many medical centers were operating on emergency power. Downed trees and power lines made it difficult for patients to reach hospitals. The National Guard and emergency officials rescued about 1,000 people overnight Monday as rain lashed the island.

When President Joe Biden returned from London and Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, he called Pierluis on Air Force One to pledge his strong support. He said 300 federal workers were on the job and the number of support workers would increase significantly as damage assessments were completed.

The president promised that the federal team would stay “working to get this done” as long as needed, especially as many families were still rebuilding after the nightmare aftermath of Maria, a deadly category five storm that left many residents without power for months. .

Biden has ordered FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell to travel to Puerto Rico on Tuesday to meet with local officials and citizens and assess urgent needs, the White House said.

One man, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, lamented the impact of a storm that mercilessly undermined the rebuilding efforts of many Puerto Ricans.

“We’re not all back; we’re only halfway there. A lot of people, more than Maria, have lost their homes … now because of the flooding,” Gonzalez told CNN’s Leyla Santiago.

Emergency aid and political risks

The primary focus of the White House and the government’s emergency management agencies is always to alleviate the casualties and deaths from a storm. Then the cleanup and rebuilding begins.

Every hurricane presents potential political problems for presidential administrations. Delayed responses or signs of indifference or misguided support could lead to days of flattering news, with the potential to stall political momentum, such as Biden is currently enjoying.

Ever since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005 and exposed a disastrous disconnect between the George W. Bush administration and local authorities, White House teams have been alert to the potential for political backlash from mismanagement of natural disasters. And they emphasize cooperation with local authorities. Or most do, at least.

Another hurricane in Puerto Rico has rekindled memories of former President Donald Trump’s response to Maria, when a video of him tossing paper towels at an aid distribution center depicted an often lackluster relief effort. The former president, however, gave him an A-plus for his response, even though it later emerged that more than 2,900 people, according to the Puerto Rican government, had died as a result of the storm. Trump also reacted to criticism by lashing out at the media and local officials – over how he would prioritize his political ambitions during the coronavirus pandemic over proper disaster management.

Yulín Cruz, who frequently clashed with Trump after Hurricane Maria, said the people of Puerto Rico were collectively suffering from post-traumatic stress after successive disasters, but a strong response from the federal government could help ease the trauma.

“The federal government has a great opportunity here (and) for President Biden to show the world how things are done when they’re done right,” he said.

After the immediate relief effort, Washington is likely to offer more long-term aid to the residents of Puerto Rico for another rebuilding effort. But former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said the lesson from previous natural disasters was that going back to the way things were would not work.

“The craziness of going back and putting it the way it was before doesn’t work,” Fugate told CNN on Monday.

“We really have to focus on where we are going to rebuild when making investments, how we are going to rebuild. Because the climate has changed, how we are going to rebuild and develop has not yet been achieved,” he added.

Although 2022 has been a fairly benign hurricane season so far, such storms are fueled by warm ocean water and moist air, and scientists say the climate crisis is getting stronger.

The proportion of high-intensity hurricanes has increased due to warmer global temperatures, according to a UN climate report released last month. Scientists have also found that storms are more likely to stall and bring destructive rainfall and last longer after reaching land.