Is Puerto Rico Getting Enough Help? No Jones Act Waiver, Delays With Hospital Ship USNS Comfort

USNS Comfort, still In Norfolk, VA

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. 

UPDATE: A Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico was granted on 9/28/17.

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.

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10 Responses to Is Puerto Rico Getting Enough Help? No Jones Act Waiver, Delays With Hospital Ship USNS Comfort

  1. Rick Spilman says:

    That seems odd. Yesterday the Washington Post reported: “The Trump administration says it is not planning to waive federal restrictions on foreign ships’ transportation of cargo to Puerto Rico and other areas affected by Hurricane Maria, as it did following hurricanes Harvey and Irma,” and that “New York Rep Nydia Velazquez has asked for a Jones Act waiver for Maria.” Apparently, the waiver request that the Trump administration turned down was made by eight members of the House of Representatives.

    The Latest: US not waiving foreign ship restrictions for PR

  2. FS says:

    Allowing more cargo to flow into P.R. on foreign hulls would achieve nothing until the infrastructure on island allows handling and distribution of that cargo. This is opportunistic bashing of the Jones Act using partial information.

  3. Rick Spilman says:

    First of all, I understand that when anyone says a cross-word about the Jones Act, its supporters react strongly. That being said, to say that the post “opportunistic bashing of the Jones Act using partial information” is absurd. The granting of a short-term waiver in the time of a natural disaster is not bashing the Jones Act. It is using a specific clause in the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 which provides for such waivers on a limited basis. Such waivers have been granted after Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Irma. The world didn’t end. All I am suggesting is that Puerto Rica following Hurricane Maria deserves the same treatment as Florida, Texas, Louisiana and New York. Yes, the distribution is a concern, but that should not be used as an excuse. The supply of some of the aid cannot be distributed without repairs to infrastructure and the infrastructure cannot be repaired without aid. There is zero downside to a short-term waiver.

  4. Irwin Bryan says:

    If you asked, the people in Houston and Florida would say send more aid to Puerto Rico!!! Take care of them like the U.S. took care of us!

  5. Peggy says:

    Just getting back to this, and truly I’m ignorant about it all, but gCaptain has another article today stating ” on Wednesday, the DHS said it is still considering a request by members of Congress to waive the shipping restrictions to Puerto Rico, but so far it had not received any formal requests from shippers or other branches of the federal government to waive the law.” As I understand it, no waivers have actually been requested by, well, I guess, “the right people” whoever they may be- not members of Congress, I guess! Apparently even though the restrictions were lifted for Harvey and Irma, no one took advantage of that. Just wondering- if that’s really true, then maybe they just are assumed to be not needed/wanted for PR either. I agree with you that they should just waive the restriction anyway, in case waivers are needed.

  6. Rick Spilman says:

    There was definitely a request by eight members of Congress for a Jones act waiver. The initial reporting was that DHS had rejected the request. Now the word is that DHS is reviewing it. Reuters is also reporting that the Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello expects the federal government to grant the waiver request. Time will tell.

    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-puertorico-jonesact/puerto-rico-expects-u-s-to-lift-jones-act-shipping-restrictions-idUSKCN1C21R0

  7. Willy says:

    Leave it to the do noting POTUS to fail to take care of responsibilities. The only thing he seems truly concerned with is getting praise for more BS.

  8. Bob says:

    Correlation is not causation; but whereas Texas and Florida who have received much attention and aid provided Trump with 67 electoral votes, Puerto Rico because of its status gave no electoral votes and seems to be getting the same in terms of attention. Just saying….correlation in not the same as causation.