Puerto Rico’s biggest port has been reopened, though efforts to expedite relief supplies to the island devastated by Hurricane Maria are challenged by severe damage to the road, computer systems and other critical areas that challenge logistics.
The White House’s refusal to temporarily suspend shipping restrictions in the wake of Hurricane Maria is an example of numerous roadblocks preventing Puerto Ricans from acquiring emergency supplies.
Approximately 9500 shipping containers filled with food, medicine, and other relief goods are located at San Juan’s port, unable to be unloaded and distributed because of damage to the island’s infrastructure and a lack of trucking manpower.
Despite the San Juan port reopening on Friday—A U.S. Coast Guard official said the loading dock’s computer systems aren’t working. Adding to the logistical challenges, Puerto Rico’s main fuel storage plant, located in the vicinity where Maria made initial landfall remains closed. As in most areas ravaged by hurricanes or storms, lines at gas stations reportedly stretch for miles.
The majority of people on the Caribbean island are still stuck without basic supplies a week after the disaster. Photo Credit: Getty Images
The Jones Act—the nebulous 1920 shipping regulation holding Puerto Rico hostage, explained:
Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island of Puerto Rico leaving in its trail destruction and devastation, with millions lacking power, damaged homes, and a severely damaged infrastructure, and a year’s worth of agricultural output essentially ruined. As in most disaster prone areas, Puerto Rico is desperate for supplies shipped from other parts of the country.
Given the location and stringent shipping rules—receiving goods from the U. S. mainland to Puerto Rico is more costly than sending them to Texas or to other Caribbean islands as a result of the Jones Act.
Somewhat vague in its description, the “Jones Act,” for those familiar with the act—is a 1920 regulation requiring that goods shipped from one American port to another be transported on a ship that is American-owned, American-built and crewed by U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
The obscurity of the Jones Act escapes most American’s because the effects of shipping restriction via the act does not directly affect American’s; therefore, the Jones Act is not a major concern. Enriching only a small number of American ship owners, the act may occasionally present them with a few reminders of the certain adopted privileges of economic activity in the United States.
In contrast and comparison—for the residents residing on the island of Puerto Rico, though, the Jones Act factors into their outcome in time of relief aid when faced with natural disasters. The rules of engagement shift toward lending itself to the basic shipments of goods from the island to the U. S. mainland, and shipments from the U.S. mainland to Puerto Rico, must be conducted via more costly ships, protected under the act as opposed to global competition.
Puerto Rican purchases are more expensive relative to goods purchased on either the U. S. mainland or other Caribbean islands, which drives up the cost of living on the island.
Thursday morning, the Trump administration—though belated—granted the island a temporary waiver from the law’s requirements, a needed action that should help to expedite immediate disaster relief.
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) September 28, 2017
“A humanitarian crisis is about to explode in Puerto Rico,” Nelson Denis, a former New York State Assembly member who’s written a book on Puerto Rico, wrote days earlier in a New York Times op-ed on “The Law Strangling Puerto Rico.” “But the consequences of Jones Act relief would be immediate and powerful.”
Puerto Rico faces a staggering array of long-term economic challenges beyond the hurricane, and the Jones Act serves as a major impediment to addressing some of them. However. A short-term waiver doesn’t address the law’s real damage to the island according to Denis. It can’t be simply repealed altogether, exempting Puerto Rico from the law would be an easy way for Congress to boost the island’s fortunes at no cost to the average American.
The Jones Act is a 97-year-old law protecting American shipbuilding
The Jones Act is the shorthand name for the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, whose primary author was Sen. Wesley Jones of Washington. (It’s not to be confused with the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917, which is also critically important to Puerto Rican history but which was sponsored by Rep. William Atkinson Jones of Virginia and relates to the legal status of the island.)
The goal of the legislation was to ensure the existence of a thriving U. S.—owned commercial shipping industry, a topic that had become salient during World War I when blockades underscored the close link between maritime commerce and warfare.
One section of the law mentioned earlier in this report requires goods transported by ship from one U.S. destination to another to be carried on U.S.-flagged ships that were constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by US legal permanent residents and citizens. The ideology of the law was perhaps conceived upon the theory that in case of war there should always be a big supply of American-made, American-owned, American-crewed ships that could be counted on (and, if necessary, conscripted) to supply American commerce even in hazardous conditions.
The Jones Act is often waived in a disaster
The Jones Act is relevant because it prevents a small number of U. S. shipbuilding and merchant shipping operations from going out of business, thus keeping them out of range of special interest groups or within the quagmire of political ramblings between parties.
On the other end of the political spectrum, the executive branch has the authority to waive the Jones Act under special circumstances, as done past when faced with making it excessively costly when shipping American goods from one destination in America to another becomes a high-profile issue.
- The Bush administration issued Jones Act waivers after Hurricanes Katrina and Hurricane to speed the shipment of fuel to the Gulf Coast.
- The Obama administration issued a more limited waiver after Hurricane Sandy, again to speed the shipment of fuel.
- On September 8, the Trump administration issued Jones Act waivers for areas impacted by Hurricane Harvey.
The people of Puerto Rico require relief while caught within the red tape of bureaucracy and infrastructure damage on the island of Puerto Rico. Proponents addressing Puerto Rico’s dilemma state the following:
“A narrow law exempting Puerto Rico from its reach could be a helpful idea. Alternatively, a midsize law that would narrow the Jones Act to the contiguous 48 states might pick up the congressional delegations of Alaska and Hawaii as champions while lifting Puerto Rico incidentally.”
While the devastation of Hurricane Maria has the spotlight on the island of Puerto Rico—the subject of maritime regulation will likely slip back into obscurity — dragging down Puerto Rico’s economy resulting from time gaps in lifting waivers and indifferences in policy, in the face of people requiring immediate aid and expediency in a time of need.
LeNora Millen 09-28-17