By Alex Daugherty & Franco Ordonez
McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats have a clear message for President Donald Trump: Puerto Rico is now a humanitarian crisis.
Large portions of the U.S. territory are without power and basic services one week after Hurricane Maria swept over the island as a Category 4 hurricane. Politicians who have spent time on the ground in Puerto Rico since the storm, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New York Rep. Nydia Velazquez, are urging the Trump administration to take every action available to help more than 3 million U.S. citizens.
“Our conventional method to respond to a storm requires the federal government to kind of plug in with the existing emergency response … and work through them to distribute aid,” Rubio said. “That model probably won’t work as well, in fact I don’t think it will work on the situation in Puerto Rico.”
Rubio said it takes five days for supplies to reach Puerto Rico by barge from Miami and seven days from Jacksonville, Fla., making it tough to get much-needed medical supplies and aid there quickly. Puerto Rico is 1,000 miles from Miami, while countries like the Dominican Republic and Jamaica are closer.
Trump said the situation in Puerto Rico is serious and that there isn’t an easy solution.
“That place was just destroyed,” Trump said on Wednesday. “That’s not a question of ‘Gee, let’s dry up the water. Let’s do this or that.’ That is a really tough situation. I feel so badly for those people.”
But the Trump administration has not waived a U.S. law that would allow foreign vessels to assist in Puerto Rico’s relief effort. The Jones Act, a law that requires the delivery of goods between U.S. ports to be done by U.S.-owned and -operated ships, was waived in Texas after Hurricane Harvey and in Florida after Hurricane Irma to allow for more efficient fuel delivery.
“That is critical, particularly for fuel,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said to CNN, adding that he expects the Trump administration to eventually waive the law. “One of the considerations right now is the priority of getting fuel, diesel, gasoline, all across the island. Right now we have enough fuel. We’re limited by the transportation logistics, but at some point, of course, getting fuel into the island is going to be critical so that we can have the major functions of telecoms, hospitals, water, to be running appropriately.”
Trump said he’s thinking about rescinding the Jones Act in Puerto Rico, but he will take into consideration the interests of the U.S. shipping industry.
“We’re thinking about that, but we have a lot of shippers and a lot of people who work in the shipping industry who don’t want the Jones Act lifted,” Trump said. “And we have a lot of ships out there right now.”
The Department of Homeland Security, under pressure from lawmakers like Velazquez and Arizona Sen. John McCain to waive the act, said it is not “legally allowed to waive the Jones Act to make goods cheaper.”
DHS officials, who declined to speak on the record, said that the Jones Act is waived “in the interest of national defense” and that the Department of Defense usually makes the recommendation based on requests from U.S. shipping interests.
Velazquez, along with three other Puerto Rican members of Congress, submitted a request to waive the act on Monday. DHS officials said the request from Congress was “not normal” but that it was being evaluated. The officials declined to say when they would make a decision on the request, but said it is “unlikely” a decision would come on Wednesday.
“The challenge remains that if we have a barge leaving tomorrow with a significant amount of aid on it, it will not be there for five to six days,” Rubio said. “Every day that goes by in some of these areas that do not have electricity or communications, the situation grows graver.”
Yet DHS officials downplayed the need for additional vessels in Puerto Rico, arguing that the biggest challenge facing the island is distributing goods from San Juan to outlying areas.
“The most significant challenges facing Puerto Rico today is travel within the island, not getting goods to the island,” a DHS official said. “The real challenges happen on the island itself.”
Rubio said the territory’s existing damage from Hurricane Irma before Maria hit the island, combined with an ongoing fiscal crisis that rendered Puerto Rico’s power utility essentially bankrupt earlier this year, makes it harder to restore basic services.
“The emergency issue before us today is not money in the next 24 to 48 hours,” Rubio said. “The emergency issue today is capacity to deliver and distribute aid to the places that need it the most in Puerto Rico.”
Rubio is in favor of waiving the Jones Act, but stressed that loosening maritime law won’t solely solve Puerto Rico’s logistical problems.
“There are still a lot of logistical challenges in Puerto Rico,” Rubio said. “I hope we don’t see Katrina-like images.”