WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump lifted U.S. shipping restrictions on storm-battered Puerto Rico for 10 days Thursday, temporarily removing a legal obstacle blamed for slowing the disaster relief response to Hurricane Maria, the White House said.
A 1920 law that restricts shipments between American ports to U.S.-owned and operated cargo ships has been preventing foreign-flagged ships from delivering relief aid to the U.S. territory.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Trump waived the Jones Act in response to a request from the island’s governor, Ricardo Rossello.
“It will go into effect immediately,” she told AFP.
Critics of the Jones Act say the lack of competition with foreign shippers makes any shipment from the U.S. mainland to Puerto Rico 30 percent more expensive than it would be from a foreign port.
“We are grateful that our cries for justice were heard and that the president did the right thing and stood on the right side of history,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz said on CNN after the waiver was announced.
The Department of Homeland Security said the waiver would last only 10 days.
“It is intended to ensure we have enough fuel and commodities to support lifesaving efforts, respond to the storm, and restore critical services and critical infrastructure operations in the wake of these devastating storms,” Elaine Duke, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, said in a statement.
Seven lawmakers led by Rep. Nydia Velazquez of New York had urged Trump to waive the restrictions for a year in order to speed delivery of critically needed supplies to devastated Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents.
The Jones Act restrictions were lifted for Texas and Florida after they were hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, respectively, but had not been waived for Puerto Rico.
The Category Four Maria took down the island power grid, crippled cellphone communications and knocked out running water when it struck a week ago.
Hours-long lines have been the norm at island gas stations as people scramble to find fuel for generators and cars.
Shortages of food and water have added to the misery and uncertainty amid a frustratingly slow relief effort.
Meanwhile, bottlenecks have developed in the distribution of aid that has arrived in Puerto Rico.
Cruz, the San Juan Mayor, confirmed that 3,000 containers of supplies were stuck in the city’s port because of disagreements over how the aid should be distributed.
Praised for the federal response to hurricanes in Texas and Florida, Trump has been on the defensive over his handling of the crisis in Puerto Rico.
Accused of showing indifference to its plight as he feuded with NFL football players, he has since pledged a massive relief effort and will visit the hurricane-battered island on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, the U.S. military swung into action, stepping up an air bridge to the island and assigning a brigadier general to coordinate the relief effort.
The USNS Comfort, a 1,000-bed hospital ship based in Virginia, is expected to depart Friday for Puerto Rico to shore up its storm-hit hospitals.
But retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who commanded military relief efforts during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said the military deployments come four days too late.
“We’re replaying a scene from Katrina in deploying the Department of Defense in helping the people of Puerto Rico,” Honore said in an interview with NPR.
Because of its distance from the mainland and the loss of the power grid Puerto Rico “is a bigger and tougher mission than Katrina,” he said.