The island of Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria. The damage has been described as apocalyptic. Most of the island is without power or water and tens of thousands are in shelters or are homeless. The healthcare system is overwhelmed by the destruction. Both fuel and food are in short supply. Help is on the way, but is it enough?
There is widespread criticism that not enough is being done. The 3.4 million American citizens in Puerto Rico are in great need of help and yet are getting less support than the victims of recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida. The Washington Post quotes Adm. Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard commandant, that he understands why Puerto Rico’s residents feel forgotten. “They feel isolated, and they’re probably getting a sense of betrayal, of, well, ‘Where is the cavalry?’ ” Zukunft said.
One way to help supplies getting to the island could be if the Federal government issued a Jones Act waiver allowing foreign flag vessels to bring aid to the island from US ports. Under the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, better known as the Jones Act, only US flag vessels can carry cargo between US ports. Puerto Rico is part of the United States and subject to the Jones Act. Puerto Ricans are US citizens. Thus far, the current administration has refused to grant a waiver.
The Washington Post reports: A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security says officials believe there is sufficient capacity of U.S.-flagged vessels to move goods to Puerto Rico. Spokesman David Lapan said most of the humanitarian shipments to Puerto Rico will be through barges, which make up a significant portion of the U.S.-flagged cargo fleet.
Jones Act waivers are not often granted but are not uncommon in the cases of hurricanes and other natural disasters. A Jones Act waiver was granted to move oil and petroleum products on September 8th, prior to Hurricane Irma making landfall. Hurricane Harvey had previously disrupted transportation. The waiver was extended through September 22nd.
In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security issued a blanket Jones Act waiver to allow foreign-flagged oil tankers from the Gulf of Mexico to help supply the Northeast with fuel, after Hurricane Sandy shut two refineries in the region. A Jones Act waiver was also granted after Hurricane Katrina.
Why previous waivers were granted in response to past hurricanes and yet refused for Puerto Rico is unclear. The refusal to grant a Jones Act waiver to Puerto Rico will only slow the delivery of aid and supplies.
The administration has also come under criticism for taking a week to begin the deployment of the hospital ship USNS Comfort to Puerto Rico. A petition on the website Change.org garnering more than 100,000 signatures in three days with critics expressing frustration with the hashtag #SendtheComfort. Now, almost a week after Hurricane Maria hit the island, the Navy finally announced that the Comfort would be sent to the island. The hospital ship typically takes four or five days to get under weigh. The trip to Puerto Rico could take an additional five days.
The USNS Comfort is no stranger to hurricane relief. It was dispatched to Haiti after Hurricane Matthew along with a sizable flotilla including the aircraft carrier USS George Washington.
The Defense Department has dispatched about 2,600 troops to aid Hurricane Maria victims in the U.S. Virgin Islands and in Puerto Rico. Marines and sailors from the USS Kearsarge, a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship and the Oak Hill, dock landing ship, in the Caribbean, were deployed Sunday to Puerto Rico. The US Coast Guard has dispatched 12 cutters to assist.
Nevertheless, the response in Puerto Rico is not impressive compared even to aid sent to foreign countries following natural disasters. Haiti — a foreign country — got the help of more than 20,000 troops after its 2010 earthquake.
The president, in responding to criticism that enough was not being done to help residents of the island, said, “It’s very tough because it’s an island. In Texas, we can ship the trucks right out there,…, but the difference is this is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean, and it’s a big ocean, it’s a very big ocean…”
For reference, the distance between Miami and Puerto Rico is just over 1,000 miles. The distance between Washington DC and Houston is 1,400 miles. It is not that big an ocean. What is large is the need for aid. Sadly, not nearly enough is being done.