President Donald Trump’s top disaster adviser defended the administration’s eight-day wait to waive restrictions 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’s 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 shipping 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 with 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 for the scale of the disaster.
“In this particular case we had enough capacity of U.S. flag vessels,” Bossert said. But the president took the action as a “proactive” measure after he received a request from Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello.
“It is intended 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,” acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said in a statement.
The Trump administration 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 “strong and decisive leadership” to fill what they described as gaps in the federal response to the storms.
Maria hit Puerto Rico more than a week ago, and the Virgin Islands were struck by Irma earlier this month.
Rossello thanked Trump on Thursday on Twitter. Bossert said that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has taken charge of restoring power in the territory, 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 importance of waiving the Jones Act. The top Republican and Democrat on the House Transportation Maritime subcommittee said 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," the two 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 backed the suspension but said 10 days wasn’t enough. Representative Nydia Velazquez of New York said Democrats want that waiver extended for a year.
She also called on Congress to quickly consider a relief package of about $50 billion to $70 billion and said the seven-member fiscal control board overseeing Puerto Rico must reconsider its debt payment plan for the island as a result of the storm.
After Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the past month, the Trump administration temporarily waived the statute for certain gasoline shipments. 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 remained 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 was 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 getting material to Puerto Rico, but distributing it over the island’s badly damaged roads. Thousands of cargo containers bearing millions of emergency meals and other relief supplies have been piling up on San Juan’s docks since Saturday. The mountains of material may 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 crisis, without electricity, mobile-phone service or clean water. Puerto Rico’s power grid went dark during the hottest season of year and may stay down for weeks or months. Of the commonwealth’s 69 hospitals, only 11 have power and fuel. Officials and residents warn of disease without access to clean water.
The devastation is the result of the third deadly hurricane within the past month to confront the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Defense Department.
“What we are seeing right now is the biggest extent 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 “very diligent” in being in contact with him every day. He also said that offers of assistance have been received from several states.