- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2017

Mounting complaints from lawmakers forced the Trump administration to waive the Jones Act on Thursday in an effort to step up relief to Puerto Rico — but the administration pushed back on claims that aid to the island has been slow.

“The people of Puerto Rico have every bit of support from President Trump that he gave to the citizens of every other state in this country,” said Tom Bossert, the president’s homeland security adviser.

Earlier in the day, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted that the administration had waived the Jones Act after lawmakers wrote a letter requesting the Department of Homeland Security lift the law. She said the waiver would go into effect immediately after a request by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello.

The island, a U.S. territory, suffered tremendous damage in the wake of Hurricane Maria making landfall on the region. The Trump administration confirmed 16 deaths on the island as of Thursday.

Flooding and damaging winds wiped out Puerto Rico’s power grid and ruined many of the homes on the island. Clean water and food are also running dangerously low.

Homeland Security Department said on Wednesday it could not lift the Jones Act without a formal request, saying it usually comes from those shipping goods to various ports, not from lawmakers. A waiver can only be granted if it’s in the interest of national defense.

Acting Secretary Elaine Duke said that the 10-day waiver will allow for “all options” to deliver goods to Puerto Rico.

“This waiver will ensure that over the next ten days, all options are available to move and distribute goods to the people of Puerto Rico. 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,” Ms. Duke said in a statement.

The Jones Act only allows U.S.-flagged ships to carry goods out of U.S. ports. U.S.-flagged ships must be made in the U.S. and be manned by U.S. citizens. Lawmakers said such restrictions were slowing down relief efforts on the island, but Homeland Security Department denied this claim in a call with reporters Wednesday. The law was waived in Texas after Hurricane Harvey, but that extension ran out on Sept. 22.

Mr. Bossert said ports in Puerto Rico were severely damaged, and waiving the Jones Act earlier would not have made a difference in getting supplies to the island.

“I wasn’t recommending it to the president until I got the governor’s request,” Mr. Bossert said. “I think we should listen to him.”

The U.S. Coast Guard said that, as of Thursday, all but four ports are either fully operating or operating with some restrictions.

“Safety and security are our primary factors determining port condition and operation. Our actions to assess damage and restore port operations at U.S. ports occur irrespective of the Jones Act,” U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Dave French said.

The delay in waiving the request angered lawmakers who accused the administration of forgetting about Puerto Rico, with some even referring to it as “President Trump’s Hurricane Katrina,” a reference to former President George W. Bush’s struggle to send adequate aid to New Orleans after that storm destroyed much of the city.

Although a group of House Democrats sent a letter to Homeland Security Department on Monday requesting that the law be lifted for one year, the agency did not act until Wednesday since they did not consider the letter to be a formal request.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, sent his own letter to to Ms. Duke on Tuesday expressing his concern that the waiver had not been granted. He called the decision “unacceptable.”

Even with the waiver granted, Democrats say the administration still isn’t doing enough for Puerto Rico.

“I would like to see the fire and fury of this administration when it comes to a rescue effort of the people of Puerto Rico,” Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, said at a press conference on Thursday with fellow Democratic lawmakers. He plans on traveling to the island on Friday to asses the damage in person.

“As was said after Hurricane Andrew: ‘Where the hell is the cavalry?’” Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, said in a statement referring to the storm that left much of his state in ruins in 1992.

Mrs. Sanders said the president “is actively engaged in monitoring the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.”

“The full weight of the United States government is engaged to ensure that food, water, health care and other life-saving resources are making it to the people in need,” she said. “The island setting presents logistical hurdles that do not exist on the mainland, where trucks from around the country can converge on disaster areas.”

The White House said 10,000 federal government relief workers are in Puerto Rico, including 7,200 troops, and that 44 of the island’s 69 hospitals are fully operational again.

“There’s a long way to go, but we will not rest until everyone is safe and secure,” Mrs. Sanders said.

Democrats are calling on the Trump administration and their House Republican colleagues to push through a supplemental emergency funding bill that would not only help recovery efforts but also fund the island’s crumbling Medicaid program as people have physical injuries from the storm.

Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez, New York Democrat, said funding the Medicaid system, which she acknowledges had issues before the storm, was “more important today” than before Maria made landfall.

“Medical emergencies are happening right now in Puerto Rico, but the Puerto Rican health care system was eroding long before Maria,” she said at the press conference. “The supplemental package needs to include funding to shore up Puerto Rico’s Medicaid crisis.”

Republicans have also called on Congress to look at how the emergency response system needs to improve to better prepare and react to these natural disasters, and what can be done to help the Puerto Rican people.

“In Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the situation remains particularly dire as flooding, downed infrastructure and power outages impede food and water from reaching large populations,” Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican, said in a statement. Mr. Bishop chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources and said he plans on holding a forum next week to discuss how the committee can further recovery efforts in the region.

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