President Donald Trump said he may temporarily suspend a law that restricts the use of foreign ships operating in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports in order to accelerate the delivery of aid to Puerto Rico, where his administration faces mounting criticism over its response to Hurricane Maria.
Asked today if his administration will consider lifting the so-called Jones Act to help Puerto Rico, as it did for both Texas and Florida this month, Trump said “we’re thinking about that. But we have a lot of shippers and a lot of people working in the shipping industry that don’t want the Jones Act lifted. And we have a lot of ships out there right now.”
A week after Hurricane Maria slammed into the U.S. commonwealth, most of the island’s 3.4 million residents still lack power, and just 11 of 69 hospitals have fuel or power. That’s increasingly putting the administration on the defensive as the scale of the humanitarian crisis grows.
Much of a Senate hearing called to discuss “worldwide threats” — including Islamic State, domestic terrorism and cybersecurity — was taken up instead by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers questioning Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke about the adequacy of the response.
“There is food and water on the island, there is gasoline on the island,” Duke said today in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee. “The challenge for us is getting it distributed.”
Senator Margaret Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat, told Duke, “We have American lives at stake here, and I would urge you and the department to do everything you can.”
Hassan said Puerto Rico’s governor sent her an email on Sept. 26 calling the situation there critical and citing unmet needs with hospitals on the verge of collapse and patients dying in their homes because they can’t get their prescriptions filled.
Duke expressed surprise at that account, saying the governor cited no unmet needs when she talked to him the same day, along with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
The federal government has provided more than 4 million meals, 6 million liters (1.59 million gallons) of water, 70,000 tarps and 15,000 rolls of roof sheeting to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said in a Sept. 26 press release. The release said FEMA and the Defense Logistics Agency are moving more than 300 generators, and the Navy and Marine Corps are trying to get generator fuel to hospitals. FEMA’s search and rescue teams report having rescued 557 people and five pets.
Almost half of Puerto Rico’s power is generated by burning petroleum products, and more than a third comes from natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. At least 11 tankers are bound for the island, bringing fuel crucial to the emergency generators that provide power to hospitals and water-purification plants. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Sept. 26 that it’s “impossible to overstate the seriousness of the situation.”
Getting more ships to deliver aid could require a suspension of the Jones Act. The almost century-old law, meant to foster a burgeoning shipping industry, mandates that vessels moving between U.S. ports be built in the country and crewed by Americans. In normal times, critics say, that doubles the cost of shipping. Now, it means there might not be enough qualified vessels to meet the crisis.
After hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the past month, the Trump administration temporarily waived the statute to ensure that gasoline could move without delay. The Homeland Security Department declined to issue a similar waiver for Puerto Rico, saying that port capacity is the bigger obstacle.
Seven U.S. House members asked the department in a letter this week to waive the Jones Act for one year, and Republican Senator John McCain asked it to consider a permanent halt. Asked about why DHS declined to issue a waiver, Duke said no such request had come from industry.
After critics said Trump was slow to respond to the crisis, the president told reporters Sept. 26 that Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have “been devastated, absolutely devastated, by Hurricane Maria, and we’re doing everything in our power to help the hard-hit people of both places.”
While Trump said “a massive effort is under way,” he described the island’s recovery as more difficult than in Texas or Florida, which were hit by hurricanes in recent weeks.
“You can’t just drive your trucks there from other states,” Trump said. The president is scheduled to visit Puerto Rico next week.
Most of the island is cut off from communication, without phone service or internet access. Virtually no one has air conditioning during Puerto Rico’s hottest season. A nursing home in San Juan made desperate pleas for diesel as its power generator ran low, while elsewhere in the city children wearing nothing but diapers camped out on balconies to stay cool.
Even before the hurricane, Puerto Rico was struggling to maintain basic infrastructure and pay a debt load of $74 billion, the largest per capita of any U.S. state or territory.
With assistance from Christopher Flavelle and Daniel Flatley.