Under pressure to do more to help hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump said Wednesday his administration was considering waiving a little-known federal law that prohibits foreign-flagged ships from shuttling goods between U.S. ports.
Republicans and Democrats have pushed Trump to waive the Jones Act, saying it could help get desperately needed supplies delivered to the island more quickly and at less cost.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke waived the law earlier this month to help ease fuel shortages in the Southeast following hurricanes Harvey and Irma. That order included Puerto Rico, but expired last week shortly after Hurricane Maria struck.
The Trump administration has said a waiver is not needed this time, because there are enough U.S. flagged ships available to ferry goods to Puerto Rico. Officials at the Homeland Security Department, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue by name, said the bottleneck is with unloading cargo at the island's damaged ports and getting the supplies inland. They made the remarks in a background conference call with reporters to justify the administration's decision.
Asked about that decision as he left the White House to pitch his tax plan at an event in Indiana, however, Trump suggested he may be open to changing course. He said some U.S. shipping executives opposed a temporary waiver.
"Well, we're thinking about that," the president said. "But we have a lot of shippers and a lot of people and a lot of people who work in the shipping industry that don't want the Jones Act lifted. And we have a lot of ships out there right now."
Republicans and Democrats were pressing the issue. Even before the storm hit, shipping household and commercial goods to Puerto Rico cost roughly double what it did to nearby Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, where foreign vessels are free to dock. The U.S. Virgin Islands were granted a permanent legal waiver from the Jones Act by Congress, but not Puerto Rico.
"These emergency waivers have been valuable to speed up recovery efforts in the impacted regions," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Tuesday. "It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster."
Rep. Nydia Velázquez, a New York Democrat who was born in Puerto Rico, also urged Trump to approve a waiver.
"Puerto Ricans are without food, clean water and electricity," she said. "We must use every tool at our disposal to channel assistance to the island."
Trump was scheduled to visit Puerto Rico on Tuesday, as his administration began dispatching additional ships and military personnel to the stricken island.
Large sections of the territory remained without adequate food, water and fuel one week after the Category 4 storm hit. Communications were spotty and roads were clogged with debris. Officials said electrical power may not be fully restored for more than a month.
"Puerto Rico's a very difficult situation. I mean, that place was just destroyed," Trump said. "That's not a question of gee, let's dry up the water, or let's do this or that. I mean, that place was flattened. That is a really tough situation. I feel so badly for those people."
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