Puerto Rico begs Trump to lift ship ban after Hurricane Irma

The territory is struggling with a lack of fuel, water and medical supplies following the storm

Neighbours sit on a couch outside their destroyed homes as sun sets in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. Photograph: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Neighbours sit on a couch outside their destroyed homes as sun sets in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. Photograph: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

 

As Puerto Rico struggles with a lack of fuel, water and medical supplies following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, it is pressing the Trump administration to lift a prohibition on foreign ships delivering supplies from the US mainland.

The island’s governor is pushing for the federal government to temporarily waive the Jones Act, a law requiring that all goods shipped between American ports be carried by US-owned-and-operated ships.

President Donald Trump’s administration has so far not granted his request. “We’re thinking about that,” Mr Trump said yesterday when asked about lifting the restrictions.

“But we have a lot of shippers and . . . a lot of people that work in the shipping industry that don’t want the Jones Act lifted, and we have a lot of ships out there right now.”

Many of the US territory’s 3.4 million inhabitants are queuing for scarce supplies of petrol and diesel to run generators as the island’s electrical grid remains crippled a week after Maria hit.

Government-supplied water trucks have been mobbed. Puerto Rico gets most of its fuel by ship from the US, but one of its two main ports is closed and the other is operating only during the daytime.

“We expect them to waive it (the Jones Act),” Governor Ricardo Rossello said, noting there was a brief waiver issued after Hurricane Irma, which was much less devastating as it grazed past the island en route for Florida earlier this month.

Members of Congress from both parties had supported an emergency waiver, he said. The US government has issued periodic Jones Act waivers following severe storms in the past, to allow the use of cheaper or more readily available foreign-flagged ships.

The US Department of Homeland Security, which waived the law after Irma and after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in August, said it was considering a request by members of Congress for a waiver, but had not received any formal requests from shippers or other branches of the federal government.

Gregory Moore, a spokesman for customs and border protection, an office of homeland security, said an agency assessment showed there was “sufficient capacity” of US-flagged vessels to move commodities to Puerto Rico. “The limitation is going to be port capacity to offload and transit, not vessel availability,” he said.

Maria, the most powerful storm to hit Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years, caused widespread flooding and damage to homes and infrastructure.

Residents are scrambling to find clean water, with experts concerned about a looming public health crisis posed by the damaged water system.

On Tuesday, hundreds of people crowded around a government water tanker in the northeastern municipality of Canovanas, some 25km east of the capital San Juan, with containers of every size and shape after a wait that for many had lasted days. “I know there can be more help,” said Juan Cruz as he filled a container.

Desperation

“We can use more help”, Mr Cruz said. “We are US citizens. We are supposed to be treated equally.”

Some also waited hours for petrol and diesel to fill their cars and power generators to light their homes.

US air force colonel Michael Valle, on hand for relief efforts in San Juan, said he was most concerned about “the level of desperation” that could arise if fuel distribution did not return to normal within a couple of weeks.

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency said by yesterday it had delivered more than 4.4 million meals and 6.5 million litres of water in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands since Maria ravaged the Caribbean.

Reuters