WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Thursday said “our entire country hurts” along with the people of Florida after Hurricane Ian flooded communities across the state, knocked out power, forced people into shelters and raised fears of a “substantial loss of life.”
Biden said the storm could end up as the “deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history.”
During a visit to the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where he was briefed on federal response efforts, the president said, “The numbers are still unclear, but we’re hearing early reports of what may be substantial loss of life.”
Biden said he would visit Florida and meet with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis when “conditions allow.” The president said he would also visit Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, that was slammed earlier this month by Hurricane Fiona.
“We know many families are hurting,” Biden said at FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center, where teams of specialists from across the federal government and partner organizations were monitoring the storm and assisting in recovery efforts. “Our entire country hurts with them.’
He urged those affected by Ian to take seriously the warnings from local officials to stay safe and remain indoors.
“Don’t go outside unless you have to,” Biden said. “The danger is real, to state the obvious. Please obey all warnings and direction from emergency officials.”
Biden and DeSantis spoke before the hurricane hit and again Thursday morning as the destruction began to come into focus. Ian made landfall as one of the strongest hurricanes ever in the United States. The storm flooded homes on Florida’s coasts, cut off the only bridge to a barrier island, destroyed a historic waterfront pier and knocked out electricity to 2.67 million homes and businesses. At least one man was confirmed dead.
Biden declared a major disaster in parts of Florida early Thursday at DeSantis’ request, freeing up additional federal assistance to state and local governments and individuals. FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said more counties would likely be added to the disaster declaration as assessments were carried out.
Asked if his administration would need additional money from Congress to respond to the storm, Biden said, “We may.”
Biden said DeSantis, with whom he has squabbled politically, was “extremely happy” with the federal response. The president said “this is not about anything having to do with our disagreements politically. This is about saving people’s lives, homes and businesses.”
Biden said he also had talked with several Florida mayors on Thursday and delivered the same message he shared with the governor about the federal government’s commitment to helping with the cleanup and with rebuilding: “We are here.”
“We’re going to do everything we can to provide everything they need,” Biden said, adding that his instruction to them was to call him directly at the White House with their needs. “They know how to do that.”
Biden also spoke to the people of Puerto Rico, who are cleaning up and trying to rebuild after Hurricane Fiona ravaged the U.S. island territory before Ian pummeled Florida on Wednesday.
“I’m committed to you and the recovery of the island,” he said. “We’ve not gone away.”