Republicans and Democrats have a clear message for President Donald Trump: Puerto Rico is now a humanitarian crisis.
Large portions of the U.S. territory are without power and basic services one week after Hurricane Maria swept over the island as a Category Four hurricane. Politicians who have spent time on the ground in Puerto Rico since the storm, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New York Rep. Nydia Velázquez, are urging the Trump administration to take every action available to help more than 3 million U.S. citizens.
“Our conventional method to respond to a storm requires the federal government to kind of plug in with the existing emergency response... and work through them to distribute aid,” Rubio said. “That model probably won’t work as well, in fact I don’t think it will work on the situation in Puerto Rico.”
Rubio said it takes five days for supplies to reach Puerto Rico by barge from Miami and seven days from Jacksonville, making it tough to get much-needed medical supplies and aid there quickly. Puerto Rico is 1,000 miles from Miami, while countries like the Dominican Republic and Jamaica are closer.
But the Trump administration has not waived a U.S. law that would allow foreign vessels to assist in Puerto Rico’s relief effort. The Jones Act, a law that requires the delivery of goods between U.S. ports to done by U.S. owned and operated ships, was waved in Texas after Hurricane Harvey and in Florida after Hurricane Irma to allow for more efficient fuel delivery.
“That is critical, particularly for fuel,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said to CNN, adding that he expects the Trump administration to eventually waive the law. “One of the considerations right now is the priority of getting fuel, diesel, gasoline, all across the island. Right now we have enough fuel. We’re limited by the transportation logistics, but at some point, of course, getting fuel into the island is going to be critical so that we can have the major functions of telecoms, hospitals, water, to be running appropriately.”
Trump said he’s thinking about rescinding the Jones Act in Puerto Rico, but he will take into consideration the interests of the U.S. shipping industry.
“We're thinking about that, but we have a lot of shippers and a lot of people who work in the shipping industry who don't want the Jones Act lifted,” Trump said. “And we have a lot of ships out there right now.”
The Department of Homeland Security, under pressure from lawmakers like Velázquez and Arizona Sen. John McCain to waive the act, said they are not “legally allowed to waive the Jones Act to make goods cheaper.”
DHS officials, who declined to speak on the record, said that the Jones Act is waived “in the interest of national defense” and that the Department of Defense usually makes the recommendation based on requests from U.S. shipping interests.
Velázquez, along with three other Puerto Rican members of Congress, submitted a request to waive the act on Monday. DHS officials said the request from Congress was “not normal” but that it was being evaluated. The officials declined to say when they would make a decision on the request, but said it is “unlikely” a decision would come on Wednesday.
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