Politics Is Making Puerto Rico's Problems Harder

All photos: AP

Nearly a week after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, US President Trump finally waived the Jones Act for the island, allowing more emergency supplies reach the battered territory's shores. The World War I-era law prevented foreign-owned ships from delivering their goods for days, leaving Puerto Rico without enough food, water, and fuel. And that's only the beginning of the small island's problems.

There's a good chance that the new supplies will arrive in San Juan's port and just sit there. Puerto Rico's wrecked infrastructure and a shortage of truck drivers as well as diesel fuel are preventing the goods from reaching citizens in need. That means that people are waiting hours in scorching heat for gasoline, and supermarkets are rationing food. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Puerto Ricans don't have power, and many haven't had power since Hurricane Irma hit the island three weeks ago. That means no running water in most cases.

"Make no mistake," Puerto Rico's governor Ricardo Rosselló said earlier this week. "This is a humanitarian disaster involving 3.4 million US citizens. We will need the full support of the US government."

The big problem is that much of the federal government isn't offering up that support as readily as it could. After all, Trump waited days to waive the Jones Act, and the waiver will only last ten days. Trump only took action, after Governor Rosselló made a public plea for a temporary waiver. The Department of Homeland Security previously issued Jones Act waivers in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma.

It seems silly that a disaster zone would need a waiver just to receive supplies, and the history of the law that requires it is controversial. The Jones Act, officially known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, requires that all goods travelling from one American coast to another be transported on American ships with American crews. The law dates back to the aftermath of World War I, when the US shipping industry was suffering damage to its fleet caused by German U-boats. Nearly a century later, however, many Americans, including many lawmakers, believe that the law is obsolete and causes more harm than good.

But again, the fix that Trump allowed on Thursday is a very temporary one. Puerto Rico faces a daunting recovery process that will take years, not days. Congress isn't expected to pass emergency aid legislation until the first or second week of October, and many say that the federal aid that's already deployed there is insufficient.

Governor Rosselló is begging for help from the military -- basic things, like the ability to use helicopters and other aircraft that are already on the island. It certainly doesn't help matters that the communication infrastructure on the island is also destroyed, forcing Puerto Rico's mayors to drive to San Juan and beg for help in person. Some mayors say that Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hasn't even done anything in their towns yet.

"We need something tangible, a bill that actually answers to our need right now," Governor Rosselló said on Tuesday. "Otherwise, there will be a massive exodus to the (continental) United States."

It's a bad situation. The latest photos from Puerto Rico show an island that looks like it was hit by a bomb, and American citizens who are living in squalor. We've included a collection below. If you'd like to help, PBS recommends a number of organisations that are accepting donations of all kinds. There's also a landing page for Hurricane Maria at GoFundMe. You can also call your local lawmakers and beg for swift legislation. That's the least we mainlanders could do.

[Washington Post, New York Times, Politico]

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