Only one ship headed to Puerto Rico under the Jones Act waiver is delivering FEMA aid

A container ship is seen docked at the port of San Juan as people deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
A container ship is seen docked at the port of San Juan as people deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Getty Images

Waiving the Jones Act for 10 days in Puerto Rico was touted as a way to deliver crucial aid and supplies to the U.S. territory in its time of need after Hurricane Maria.

But the Trump administration did not renew the waiver when it expired on Sunday night, despite Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s desire for an extended waiver that would allow foreign ships to deliver goods to Puerto Rican ports from the U.S. mainland.

“I think we should have it. I think we should have all the tools that we have at hand,” Rosselló told CBS News. “I don’t know what the results are of that Jones Act, again, we only had it for 10 days. It still needs to be analyzed. It couldn’t hurt; it couldn’t hurt to have it.”

The Department of Homeland Security said that 14 ships notified the government under the September 28 waiver and three have completed their journeys to Puerto Rico. Only one of the 14 foreign-owned vessels is delivering FEMA aid to the island.

“Most humanitarian relief supplies are being delivered by U.S. government (DHS, FEMA and DoD [Department of Defense]) assets, or Jones Act-qualified vessels,” said DHS spokesman David Lapan.

Ships operating under the Sept. 28 waiver must have loaded their cargo by the October 8 deadline and have until October 18 to transport their cargo to Puerto Rico.

Sen. John McCain, a longtime opponent of the Jones Act, called on Congress to pass a permanent Jones Act exemption for Puerto Rico after the temporary waiver expired.

“Now that the temporary Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico has expired, it is more important than ever for Congress to pass my bill to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from this archaic and burdensome law,” McCain, R-Arizona, said in a statement. “Until we provide Puerto Rico with long-term relief, the Jones Act will continue to hinder much-needed efforts to help the people of Puerto Rico recover and rebuild from Hurricane Maria.”

McCain and some libertarian-leaning Republicans oppose the Jones Act because they argue that it stifles economic competition in U.S. ports. A number of Puerto Ricans in Congress also support a permanent Jones Act exemption because they argue it causes the cost of goods to rise on the island, though Florida benefits from the 1920 law intended to bolster the domestic shipping industry.

The Jones Act requires ships transporting goods within the country to be built, owned, and operated by U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Jacksonville is the main U.S. mainland port for goods headed to Puerto Rico under the Jones Act. Foreign ships from foreign ports are able to deliver goods directly to Puerto Rico.

“America needs our own shipping industry to remain independent in times of a national threat,” said Rep. John Rutherford, R-Jacksonville. “I am proud of the maritime workers in Northeast Florida and their hundreds of colleagues in Puerto Rico who have been working tirelessly around the clock to get goods to those in need. Because of the Jones Act, Northeast Florida will continue to provide reliable, efficient, and cost-effective shipment of goods.”

There are currently 51 ships docked in San Juan, with 33 more expected arrivals as of Wednesday afternoon, according to marine-traffic data. Distributing goods throughout the island after arriving in port remains a challenge in Puerto Rico, and the Jones Act only applies to goods traveling by sea.

Though the Jones Act waiver only led to one foreign ship transporting FEMA-related aid, Rosselló argued that any measure that allows more ships to arrive in Puerto Rico will help relief efforts.

“In this emergency phase while we’re looking to sustain and save lives we should have all of the assets at hand,” Rosselló said.

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty