Storm-ravaged Puerto Rico calls on Washington to allow ship carrying fuel to dock

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A ship carrying much-needed diesel fuel has been unable to dock in hard-hit southern Puerto Rico since Sunday while it awaits federal authorization because of the Jones Act, a century-old shipping law.

The delay comes at a time when about 40% of power customers still do not have electricity more than a week after Hurricane Fiona battered the island.

Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said on Twitter on Monday morning that he had asked the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, to personally intervene to allow the vessel loaded with diesel to dock “for the benefit of our people.”

The Jones Act, otherwise known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, requires that goods shipped between American ports be carried out exclusively by ships built primarily in the United States, and to have U.S. citizens as its owners and crews. That means that a foreign ship with goods for Puerto Rico would first have to disembark in the mainland U.S. and change crews.

The Department of Homeland Security said in a statement to NBC News Monday afternoon, “The Department of Homeland Security will continue to examine individual requests for Jones Act waivers on a case-by-case basis and in consultation with the Maritime Administration, Departments of Defense, and Energy.”

DHS did not respond to specific questions about the ship and its waiver request.

Joel Pizá Batiz, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Ports Authority, said on social media earlier Monday that a ship with a foreign flag that had come from Texas was off the coast of the island and had requested a Jones Act waiver.

The Puerto Rican government is ready to provide “any statistics, information, data and clarification” as part of the waiver process with Homeland Security, in accordance with federal law, he added.

In an interview with El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, Pizá Batiz said the ship with fuel was sent by British Petroleum.

Pizá Batiz said in another social media post that the ship arrived off the coast of the island after 4 p.m. on Sunday without a federal waiver to dock and had not been scheduled to arrive. 

Signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson two years after World War I ended, the Jones Act was passed as a protective measure against foreign competition.

Opponents of the act say it causes delays in shipping that wouldn’t otherwise exist and increases the costs of goods to the island. Others in the U.S. have defended it, saying it helps protect U.S. jobs.

On Thursday, eight members of Congress called for the federal government to grant a one-year waiver from the Jones Act for storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., wrote on social media that she is calling for the yearlong waiver “to expedite supplies being shipped into the Island’s ports in order to accelerate Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Fiona.

Road bisected by flood debris.
View of road in Toa Alta, which was damaged by flooding caused by Hurricane Fiona.Miami Herald / TNS

“The island is now facing an unprecedented uphill battle to rebuild its homes, businesses, and communities. Temporarily loosening these requirements — for the express purpose of disaster recovery — will allow Puerto Rico to have more access to the oil needed for its power plants, food, medicines, clothing and building supplies,” the members of Congress wrote in the letter to DHS.

Then-President Donald Trump temporarily waived the Jones Act in 2017 after Hurricane Maria caused catastrophic damage on the island and after the administration had come under increasing pressure from officials in Puerto Rico and the mainland.

‘This shouldn’t be happening’

Since Hurricane Fiona hit, fuel and diesel have become essential to keeping portable generators going amid the ongoing loss of power in some sections of the island. People have been stuck in long lines for days waiting to get fuel.

“We need these services,” said Carmen Rodríguez, 50, a community leader in the southern municipality of Ponce, where neighborhoods were flooded and homes damaged in the storm. As of Monday morning, only 16% of power customers in Ponce had their electricity restored, according to the Puerto Rican government.

Rodríguez said diesel was essential to keeping grocery stores, hospitals and health health centers operating as some businesses have temporarily closed or cut hours because of the lack of fuel.

“This shouldn’t be happening. They should allow it to come in,” she said of the fuel-laden ship.

As of Monday morning, electricity had been restored to 869,000 power customers, or about 59% of all customers, according to the Puerto Rican government’s emergency portal

And about 84%, or more than 1,115,000 customers, had their water service restored as of Monday morning, according to the Water and Sewer Authority.

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