President Joe Biden will travel to Florida and Puerto Rico next week to survey the damage from twin storms that devastated the two regions.
The president and first lady Jill Biden will travel to Florida on Wednesday, the White House announced. Biden had said he wanted to wait until his visit would not hinder rescue workers, who are continuing to search for survivors and helping restore power and water to homes.
As many as 54 people are reported to have died in the mainland of the US in the storm, which hit Florida as a category-four hurricane with up to 150 mile per hour winds.
Forty-seven of those deaths occurred in Florida, the majority of them in Lee County, which includes Fort Myers. A key bridge connecting Sanibel Island to the Florida mainland was severed, leaving residents stranded.
In the wake of the storm, rescuers have worked to assess the scale of the vast devastation from the hurricane, the deadliest in Florida’s history.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida called the storm a “character-altering event”.
“Fort Myers Beach no longer exists . . . Sanibel’s basically flattened,” Rubio told ABC News. The structures that remained on Sanibel were so damaged by water they were probably inhabitable and have to be razed, he said. The people who had chosen to stay on Sanibel through the storm would now have no choice but to leave, he said. He estimated it would take “a couple of years” to rebuild the bridge.
“There’s no way to continue their life there. There’s no way to restore the power. There’s no economy there,” Rubio said.
At least 35 people died in Lee County, where officials waited until the day before the storm hit to order a mandatory evacuation, after the hurricane’s path changed. Other coastal counties had ordered evacuations the previous day.
On Sunday, Fort Myers mayor Kevin Anderson defended local officials’ actions.
“I think the county acted appropriately. The thing is that a certain percentage of people will not heed the warnings regardless,” Anderson told CBS’s Face The Nation.
Anderson said Fort Myers residents were starting to see power and water services return. “We have crews that are working 16 hours a day. They will work seven days a week until we get everything restored,” he said.
Ahead of their visit to Florida, the Bidens will also travel to Puerto Rico, which is still recovering from Hurricane Fiona more than two weeks ago.
Ten days after Fiona hit, hundreds of thousands of residents on the island were still without power. At least 25 people were killed, according to emergency services.
Local officials have warned that recovery from the storm could be especially prolonged, given that the island is rebuilding from Hurricane Maria, which took out much of the region’s critical infrastructure when it hit almost five years ago.
In Cuba, protests have broken out at the lack of electricity days after Hurricane Ian knocked out power and destroyed homes.