It took days of lobbying by Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló to temporarily ease the Jones Act, a maritime law that some policymakers believe makes goods in Puerto Rico more expensive, and limits aid vessels in port to American-flag ships. After the Trump administration said on September 26 that there was no need to temporarily waive the Jones Act, Rosselló said on September 27 that he’d reached out to Congress and that “we expect them to waive it.”
The administration granted the waiver the following day, allowing foreign ships to sail to Puerto Rico’s aid along with domestic ships. Some of those American-flag assets were already moving to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the storm. The USNS Comfort, the Navy’s floating hospital, wasn’t deployed until nine days after Maria’s landfall, and has just now arrived off the Puerto Rican shore.
“Those are things that I think should’ve been in place shortly after the storm,” argued Edwin Melendez, the director of Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies. FEMA-assisted basic disaster logistics and preparation are critical, but appear to have been largely absent in Puerto Rico. Undelivered foods and supplies have remained undelivered because there seem to have been few existing plans for getting them to Puerto Rico’s interior, and now very few ways to track and identify needy populations, since communications outside major municipalities have largely gone dark and rural roads are difficult to traverse.
But the most dire current needs in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands—and the most potentially deadly problems—are staggering infrastructure losses. According to U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp, “this will be the fifth time the U.S. government has basically paid to rebuild our power infrastructure,” after powerful hurricanes over the past three decades have destroyed homes and grids on Saint Croix, Saint Thomas, and Saint John. Mapp hopes to work with FEMA and the Department of the Interior to build hurricane-resilient power lines, but that project will take time and a generous appropriation of funds from a Congress that has not usually been generous to the territories.
Puerto Rico’s power infrastructure is also notoriously flimsy, even on good days, and one of the major components of its debt crisis is the $10 billion debt of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), which has had to run up massive credit lines just to keep its outdated, mostly oil-powered grid running, with payments from the island and its citizens always coming up short. That grid was destroyed entirely in Maria, and in Melendez’s view, “restoring the electrical system might be a longer-term project.”
That project will be difficult. The collapse of PREPA and other utilities on the island has been influenced by Congress’s decisions to end corporate-friendly tax codes and subsidies, and the Puerto Rican economy has suffered from depression and inefficiency over the past two decades. The remedy from Congress, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), did help fend off the worst of the debt crisis, but also installed a congressionally-appointed board of directors who can basically overrule the Puerto Rican government and has thus destroyed any semblance of self-determination. While last week Puerto Rican officials turned down a further $1 billion loan from PREPA’s creditors that would have probably dragged the island’s finances even lower, just how the new electrical system for the entire territory will be built is anyone’s guess.