Biden, visiting FEMA in Ian’s aftermath, says search and rescue critical

(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden on Thursday visited FEMA headquarters in Washington as search and rescue efforts were underway in Florida in the wake of Hurricane Ian.

Upon his arrival, Biden turned to FEMA personnel in the room and thanked them for their work during the historic storm.

Early assessments offer a devastating picture of the damage wreaked by the hurricane. Severe flooding and storm surges left people trapped in their homes, knocked out power to millions and destroyed at least two bridges in southwest Florida.

“This could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history,” Biden said. “Numbers are still unclear, but we’re hearing early reports of what may be substantial loss of life.”

The president said he’ll go to Florida once weather conditions allow to survey damage. He also said he intends to go to Puerto Rico, which was ravaged by Hurricane Fiona earlier this month.

“We’re continuing to see deadly rainfall, catastrophic storm surges, roads and homes flooded,” Biden said. “We’re seeing millions of people without power and thousands hunker down in schools and community centers. They’re wondering what’s going to be left, what’s gonna be left when they get to go home.”

Before his visit to FEMA, Biden approved a major disaster declaration for the state, making federal funding available to impacted individuals in nine counties: Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hardee, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota.

Biden said the declaration means the federal government will pay for “100% of the cost” to clear debris and to save lives. The government will also cover a majority of the cost to rebuild public buildings ruined by the storm.

The president spoke with GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis again on Thursday morning, telling DeSantis that FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell will travel to Florida on Friday to check in on response efforts.

DeSantis has thanked the administration for the resources provided so far, but said Thursday the state expects more disaster declarations as the storm continues to move across the state.

“I just spoke with the president this morning and he offered support. I told them that thanks for this but because the storm has moved inland and caused a lot of potential damage in the center part of our state, that we are going to be asking for those counties to be expanded and included there,” DeSantis said at a press conference at 9 a.m. Thursday.

The White House said Biden and DeSantis, often political opponents, are “committed to continued close coordination.”

Accompanying the president to FEMA on Thursday were Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and leaders from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service, the U.S. Coast Guard and other officials.

Biden said search and rescue was critical, noting the Coast Guard’s deployed 16 rescue helicopters, six fixed-wing aircraft and 18 rescue boats and crews.

“These are dangerous missions, and I’m grateful for the brave women and men in federal, state and local governments working as one team, risking their lives to save others,” the president said.

Biden urged Floridians to continue to heed warnings from officials, and not to go outside unless they “absolutely have to.”

“My message to people of Florida, to the country is at times like this, America comes together,” Biden said. “We’re gonna pull together as one team, as one America.”

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