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Trump Response to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria Too Little, Too Late

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After eight days of delay from the Trump administration, the Jones Act has been temporarily waived, allowing foreign ships to carry aid to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. What does it mean and will it be enough?

All 3.5 million US citizens in Puerto Rico are still without power, which in some areas are estimated to take up to 6 months to repair. Nearly half are also without clean drinking water. While cellular service was brought back up inside of a week after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, delayed response from the White House has meant that nearly the entire island is still without signal in Puerto Rico to contact family and friends.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke signed a temporary waiver of the Jones Act and in a tweet Thursday morning Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated that per the request of Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello, President Trump had authorized the Jones Act to be waived, effective immediately. These developments came after Trump spent the last few days under fire for what many considered too slow a response. Earlier in the week President Trump claimed that delays in sending supplies were due to its location and difficulty in getting supplies to the island, saying “It’s a big ocean, a very big ocean.” Puerto Rico is approximately 1100 miles offshore or roughly the driving distance from New York City to Orlando

Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who oversaw the relief effort after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 likened response from the Trump administration to that of President Bush, saying President Trump and the White House should have prepared prior to landfall with personnel and equipment. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) harshly condemned the President and lawmaker Jose Enrique Melendez, a member of Governor Rossello’s New Progressive Party called the federal response “a disaster.”

It’s possible that when President Trump was referring to the difficulties in getting aid to Puerto Rico he meant specifically a necessity to waive the Jones Act, which he had done previously in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Unfortunately for the people of Puerto Rico, these waivers ended just after Hurricane Maria made landfall rather than being extended.

The Jones Act or Merchant Maritime Act of 1920 is a federal statute requiring that any goods transported by water between US ports be carried on US flag ships, constructed in the US, owned by US citizens, and crewed by US citizens and permanent residents. It was passed after WWI in order to prevent the US from having insufficient maritime capacity in the event of future wars. In general it prevents foreign-flagged ships from carrying cargo between US mainland and non-contiguous parts of the US including Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Alaska and Guam. But the US Virgin Islands is exempt in spite of being a US territory due to an addition enacted in 1936 and the coastal town of Hyder, Alaska was exempted in a 1947 revision to the Act.

Critics of the Jones Act describe it as protectionist, claiming it’s directly responsible for making consumer goods both more expensive and scarcer than on the mainland, harming the overall economy while benefiting narrow interests.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released reports disputing these claims and former Presidents Bush and Obama have supported the Act as vital to national security. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) filed an amendment in 2015 that would effectively annul the Jones Act and Thursday morning tweeted, “Trump admin has finally waived Jones Act for Puerto Rico. Now Congress must repeal this law to aid long-term recovery.” He later introduced a bill with Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) to permanently exempt Puerto Rico.

The current waiver of the Jones Act is set for 10 days and can be extended. Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan, commander of US Army North arrives later Thursday to assess the situation, oversee logistics for support, and report back to the President.

It’s likely that damaged and destroyed infrastructure has been and will continue to be a serious cause for delay in the delivery of food, water, and other necessities and those with a Commercial Drivers License are being called upon to deliver aid to millions of citizens who are suffering further inland.

Puerto Rico is a US territory with a population greater than that of 21 states. Its citizens are American citizens but cannot vote. Puerto Rico has no senators and has a delegate in Congress who cannot vote. In a tweet sent Monday, President Trump said Puerto Rico was “already suffering from broken infrastructure and massive debt.” This is partially the result of Puerto Rico having no capital gains tax and being exempted from bankruptcy protection. Additionally, a Trump company was unable to save a golf club and resort from bankruptcy in 2008, and $32.6 million in government investment into the company was not recouped.

 

Sally Suarez

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