President Donald Trump’s top disaster adviser defended the government’s eight-day wait to waive limitations under the Jones Act that limited which ships could be used to deliver relief supplies to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, despite complaints from lawmakers.
Tom Bossert, Trump’ homeland security adviser, said the criticism is “unfounded. ” Shortages of water, food, fuel and other relief supplies have been caused by distribution bottlenecks on the island rather than constraints in transport capacity, he told reporters at a White House briefing.
Trump on Thursday ordered a waiver of the Jones Act, a 1920 maritime law requiring shipments of goods between two U.S. ports to be made out of American-flagged vessels and manned by American crews. The waiver will last 10 days for shipments to Puerto Rico, though some Democrats criticized the time period as too short.
“In this specific case we had enough capacity of U.S. flag vessels,” Bossert said. However, the president took the action as a “#x 201D & proactive; measure after he received a request from Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello.
“It is meant 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,” behaving Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said in a statement.
The Trump government is facing mounting criticism of its response to damage from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and Hurricane Irma in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Thirty-eight Democratic senators wrote Trump on Thursday calling for “decisive and strong leadership & #x 201D; to fill what they described as gaps in the national response to the storms.
Maria hit Puerto Rico over a week ago, and the Virgin Islands were struck by Irma this month.
Rossello thanked Trump on Thursday on Twitter. Bossert said that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has taken control of restoring power in the land, which is largely without electricity and dependent on generators.
“Finally, the White House is beginning to wake up, taking temporary action on the Jones Act and upping the military presence,” Illinois Representative Luis Gutiérrez, a Democrat, said in a statement. “But it took a while and more is needed right now. ”
There is dispute about the value of waiving the Jones Act. The top Republican and Democrat on the House Transportation Maritime subcommittee said that they’re against it.
“The concerns about the situation in Puerto Rico are real. But we must focus our attention on the actions that can deliver real results on the island,” Republican Duncan Hunter and Democrat John Garamendi wrote in a letter to House colleagues.
“Waiving the Jones Act will not help and, in fact, could hinder the response,” both Californians wrote. There is “more than adequate supply of U.S.-flag vessels to cost-effectively and efficiently deliver the goods from U.S. ports to Puerto Rico,” they said.
Other Democrats supported the suspension but said 10 times wasn’t enough. Representative Nydia Velazquez of New York said Democrats need that waiver extended for a year.
She also called on Congress to quickly look at a relief package of about $50 billion to $70 billion and said the seven-member monetary control board overseeing Puerto Rico must reconsider its debt repayment plan for the island as a result of the storm.
After Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the month, the Trump government waived the statute for certain gas imports. When the Homeland Security Department earlier this week declined to issue a similar waiver for Puerto Rico, it said port capacity was the bigger obstacle. As of Wednesday, six of 15 ports on the island stayed closed.
“The waivers make sense in instances where there’s a need and a demand and we’ve exhausted all possible U.S. flagged resources and then we go into the realm where foreign-flagged tonnage is required,” said Klaus Luhta, vice president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, said Wednesday before the waiver has been issued. “But to not go through that process is unfortunate, it’s disingenuous and it violates the law.”
Hunter and Garamendi said the problem wasn’t obtaining material to Puerto Rico, but distributing it on the island’s roads that were badly damaged. Thousands of cargo containers bearing countless emergency meals and other relief supplies have been piling up on San Juan’s docks since Saturday. The mountains of material might not reach storm survivors for days.
“Bringing additional foreign ships into ports struggling to get back to normal operations will likely only exasperate the problem,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter to colleagues.
The island of 3.4 million is in the throes of a burgeoning humanitarian catastrophe, without electricity, mobile-phone support or clean water. Puerto Rico’ power grid might remain down for months or weeks and went dark. Of the commonwealth’ 69 hospitals, only 11 have power and fuel. Residents and officials warn to clean water.
The devastation is the result of the third deadly storm over the past month to face the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Defense Department.
“What we’re seeing right now is the scope of devastation in the history of Puerto Rico,” Rossello told MSNBC Thursday. “What we need is all hands on deck. ”
Rossello said Trump has been &in being in contact; #x 201D & #x 201C; very diligent. He said that offers of assistance have been received from several states.
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