Washington (AFP) – President Donald Trump eased shipping restrictions on storm-battered Puerto Rico Thursday, as he faced sharp criticism for the painfully slow response to Hurricane Maria.
A week after the Category Four storm stuck, the White House said Trump had made it easier for fuel and water supplies to arrive to the ravaged island of 3.4 million US citizens.
He waived a 1920 law that restricts foreign-flagged ships from operating between US ports, in response to a request from Puerto Rico’s governor.
“It will go into effect immediately,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
For eight days, Puerto Ricans have struggled to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of a storm that took down the power grid, crippled cell phone communications and wrecked water supplies.
Hours-long lines have been the norm at island gas stations as people scramble to find fuel for generators and cars.
Around 10,000 people are in shelters according to emergency responders at FEMA, thousands more are clearing their homes of debris.
Shortages of food and water have added to the misery and uncertainty amid a frustratingly slow relief effort.
In a sign of the seriousness of the challenge, the US military on Thursday tapped three-star general Jeff Buchanan to lead its response.
Around 4,400 military personnel have been deployed to deal with the crisis.
This, after Republican Senator Marco Rubio complained “there is no clear command, control, and communication between local officials on the ground and federal agencies.”
Asked why it took eight days to get a top general on the ground, Trump’s homeland security advisor Tom Bossert defended the administration’s response.
“It didn’t require a three-star general eight days ago,” he said, saying that much of the criticism was based on out of date information.
Critics say Washington is repeating the errors of Hurricane Katrina — which ravaged New Orleans in 2005.
Retired lieutenant general Russel Honore, who commanded military relief efforts during Katrina, said the military deployments come four days too late.
“We’re replaying a scene from Katrina in deploying the Department of Defense in helping the people of Puerto Rico,” Honore said in an interview with NPR.
Because of its distance from the mainland and the loss of the power grid Puerto Rico “is a bigger and tougher mission than Katrina,” he said.
Praised for the federal response to hurricanes in Texas and Florida, Trump has been on the defensive over his handling of the crisis in Puerto Rico.
– Bottlenecks –
Accused of showing indifference to its plight as he feuded with NFL football players, he has since pledged a massive relief effort and will visit the hurricane-battered island on Tuesday.
On Wednesday the US military swung into action, stepping up an air bridge to the island, and the USNS Comfort, a 1,000-bed hospital ship based in Virginia, is expected to depart Friday for Puerto Rico to shore up its storm-hit hospitals.
Meanwhile, bottlenecks have developed in the distribution of aid that has arrived in Puerto Rico.
Cruz, the San Juan Mayor, confirmed that 3,000 containers of supplies were stuck in the city’s port because of disagreements over how the aid should be distributed.
Critics of the Jones Act say the lack of competition with foreign shippers makes any shipment from the US mainland to Puerto Rico 30 percent more expensive than it would be from a foreign port.
The Jones Act restrictions were lifted for Texas and Florida after they were hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma respectively, but had not been waived for Puerto Rico.
The Department of Homeland Security said the waiver would last only 10 days.
“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,” Elaine Duke, the acting secretary of homeland security said in a statement.
Seven lawmakers led by Representative Nydia Velazquez of New York had urged Trump to waive the restrictions for a year in order to speed delivery of critically needed supplies.