Residents from Juana Matos wait in line to buy groceries at Catano Mini Market in the middle of a supply shortage caused by the passage of Hurricane Maria, in Catano, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, September 27, 2017. The aftermath of the powerful storm has resulted in a near-total shutdown of the Puerto Rican economy that could last for weeks and has many people running seriously low on cash and deeply concerned that it will become even harder to survive on this storm-ravaged island.
President Donald Trump waived the shipping restrictions for Puerto Rico on Thursday that the island’s governor has said complicate and raise the price of hurricane relief.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced the decision in a Twitter message. The move comes after criticism that the White House has been slow to act to help Puerto Rico recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, had said Wednesday that he expected the waiver, which suspends a 1920 law requiring that only American-flagged vessels be used for shipments between two U.S. ports. The law known as the Jones Act limits the number of ships that could be sent to Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, and thus the amount of relief supplies that have come in since the hurricane.
The Department of Homeland Security had said as recently as Monday that the law would not be suspended. The department said then that there were sufficient ships available to meet the need.
Critics of the law call it a protectionist relic, and the Wall Street Journal editorialized this week that it should be permanently repealed.
The Trump administration has already rushed military hardware and personnel to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands as the scale of the damage has come clear, along with the inadequacy of the federal response.
In the first six days after the hurricane made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, the Navy had deployed just two ships, citing concerns that Puerto Rico’s ports were too damaged to accommodate numerous large vessels, the Post reported Thursday.
Reports of isolated U.S. citizens struggling in the heat without electricity and running low on food and water have now spurred the Pentagon to throw resources into the relief effort even though they haven’t been specifically requested by territorial officials.
The stepped-up response includes the deployment of the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship that has responded to other natural disasters.