SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico >> Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello today thanked the Trump administration for helping the island cope with the devastation of Hurricane Maria after the president, facing criticism that he had not done enough, agreed to waive a federal law restricting foreign ships from transporting cargo to the U.S. territory.
The governor promised a more rapid, coordinated response in coming days.
“The federal government and the president are aware of what’s happening here, and they have responded to our petitions quickly with a compromise to help the situation in Puerto Rico,” Rossello said at a briefing today in the San Juan convention center.
In addition to federal aid, Rossello said 17 states have sent disaster response teams to assist the recovery.
The convention center was converted into an emergency operations center after the hurricane made landfall Sept. 20. Rossello was flanked today by Federal Emergency Management Agency and military officials who are supporting Puerto Rico’s response to the crisis.
The federal government waived the Jones Act restrictions after recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida to aid relief efforts, but not immediately for Puerto Rico, where the island’s 3.4 million residents are still facing shortages of water, food, medicine and other basic supplies more than a week after the storm.
Several federal legislators this week requested that the Trump administration waive the law temporarily.
Rossello said he expects the law — which restricts foreign-flagged ships from delivering goods to U.S. ports — will be suspended for at least a week, as it was in those two states. The Trump administration said the waiver was effective immediately.
How much the waiver of the Jones Act will help Puerto Rico remains to be seen as other problems persist such as blocked roads and a lack of capability to move supplies already available on the island.
Containers have languished at ports here even as residents complained of shortages of gas, food, water and other staples. Much of the island remains without electricity or cellphone service. Conditions worsened this week, as hospitals across the island closed due to broken generators and lack of fuel.
On the island of Vieques, there were reports of residents taking over a gas station due to shortages and local officials demanding martial law.
Rossello said officials were attempting to send gas and other aid to Vieques, that the storm’s official death toll remained at 16 today, but that additional deaths had been reported at hospitals where patients were removed from life support due to fuel shortages. He said part of the problem is that communications are still spotty, with cellphone towers and networks down.
“We are sending out runners, sending out (U.S. disaster management) units to assess the situation, communicating to hospitals that have had damage or are not accessible to the community that we need to move those patients,” the governor said.
Rossello said 33 of the island’s 69 hospitals were open today as well as 40 dialysis centers. The government also opened 11 regional centers to distribute food, water and other supplies.
The governor said emergency managers were reaching out to truck drivers to help distribute gas and some of the 9,500 containers at the port in San Juan.
Rossello said 86 bank branches have opened, as well as about 62 percent of the island’s gas stations.
Rossello stressed that the hurricane’s toll was staggering, that “almost the entire island is a disaster zone.”
“This is the biggest catastrophe in modern day Puerto Rico,” he said, but “we are taking action and getting results. If we open more stations, distribute more gas and open more hospitals … I want to say we are making progress. I’m sure we will get stability and we will start rebuilding Puerto Rico better than before.”
Rear Adm. Jeffrey Hughes joined the governor to detail the U.S. military response, which included two Navy ships he commands, plus 800 Marines who were in Caribbean when the hurricane arrived.
“We put ourselves in a position to respond as rapidly as we could once the weather passed,” Hughes said.
They have been distributing food, water and medical supplies by sea and air, he said. Marines were stationed at an airport in the southeastern coastal city of Ceiba to relieve pressure on San Juan’s airport, and also to run water production and purification, fuel trucks and help set up U.S. Air Force air traffic control, he said.
U.S. forces have been working with the Puerto Rico National Guard to clear roads, distribute aid to more remote towns, and ensure hospitals not only have enough fuel, but have working generators. He promised that more troops were on the way to assist as the recovery shifts from a sea to a land-based operation.
“We’re going to be here all the way through… to best support the people of Puerto Rico,” he said.