September 27, 2017 / 6:39 PM / 9 months ago

UPDATE 4-Puerto Rico seeks waiver of shipping restrictions to speed hurricane relief

 (Adds details on communications outages; gasoline rationing;
Navy hospital ship deployed; power grid needs rebuilding)
    By Robin Respaut
    SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Sept 27 (Reuters) - Puerto Rico
officials pressed the Trump administration on Wednesday to lift
a ban on foreign shipping between American ports while the U.S.
island territory struggled with fuel, water and medical
shortages one week after Hurricane Maria struck.
    Even as federal emergency management authorities and the
U.S. military stepped up relief efforts, many residents on the
island of 3.4 million people voiced exasperation at the
prolonged lack of electricity, reliable drinking supplies and
other essentials.
    Maria, the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in
nearly 90 years, swept across the island with roof-ripping winds
last Wednesday, knocking out the territory's entire power grid,
unleashing severe flooding and causing widespread heavy damage
to homes and infrastructure.
    The storm claimed more than 30 lives across the Caribbean,
including at least 16 in Puerto Rico. Governor Ricardo Rossello
called the devastation an unprecedented natural disaster.
    Medical experts said they were concerned about a looming
public health crisis posed by the island's crippled water and
sewage treatment system. The delivery of relief supplies has
been complicated by communication outages and roads still
damaged by flooding or left impassable by fallen trees, wires
and debris.
    Desperate residents have waited hours in long lines for
deliveries of diesel fuel to power generators and gasoline to
refill empty automobile tanks.              Some water-supply
trucks have been mobbed.
    Rossello has strongly praised the response of U.S. President
Donald Trump, defending the Republican administration against
complaints of being slow to act and showing too little concern.
    On Wednesday the governor and others pushed Trump to
temporarily waive the Jones Act, a law requiring that all goods
shipped between U.S. ports be carried by U.S. owned-and-operated
    Administration officials on Tuesday balked at the idea,
saying there was sufficient shipping capacity for emergency
deliveries to Puerto Rico in the U.S. merchant fleet, but Trump
said on Wednesday that a waiver was under consideration.
    "We're thinking about that," Trump told reporters. "But we
have a lot of shippers and .... a lot of people that work in the
shipping industry that don't want the Jones Act lifted, and we
have a lot of ships out there right now."
    Puerto Rico typically gets most of its fuel by ship from the
United States, but one of its two main ports is closed and the
other is operating only during the daytime. 
    "We expect them to waive it (the Jones Act)," Rossello told
CNN on Wednesday, noting there was a brief waiver issued after
Hurricane Irma, which was much less devastating as it grazed
past the island en route to Florida earlier this month.
    Members of Congress from both parties have supported an
emergency waiver, he said.
    The U.S. government has issued periodic Jones Act waivers
following severe storms in the past, including Irma and
Hurricane Harvey, which ravaged the coastal Texas and Louisiana
in August.
    Growing frustration levels were evident among throngs of
island residents struggling on a daily basis to cope without
basic necessities.
    Despite gasoline rationing, service stations have been able
to stay open just a few hours at a time, and more than 91
percent of cellular communication sites remained out of service,
U.S. officials said             . 
    Electrical outages also have left many without internet or
cable services, while at least nine radio stations and one
television broadcaster were still off the air on Wednesday.
    Most hospitals were without electricity or adequate fuel for
generators, though the island was expected to get some medical
relief next week with the arrival of the 1,000-bed U.S. Navy
hospital ship Comfort, due to sail from its home port in
Virginia on Friday. {nL2N1M900P]  
    Long-term power restoration will require a rebuilding of
generation, transmission and distribution facilities, according
to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which
oversees the disaster response.
    On Tuesday, hundreds of people crowded around a government
water tanker in the northeastern municipality of Canovanas, some
15 miles (25 km) east of the capital San Juan, with containers
of every size and shape after a wait that for many had lasted
    "I know there can be more help," said Juan Cruz as he filled
a container. Residents there said it was the first such truck to
visit their neighborhood since the hurricane struck.
    "We can use more help,” Cruz said. “We are U.S. citizens. We
are supposed to be treated equally."
    U.S. Air Force Colonel Michael Valle, on hand for relief
efforts in San Juan, said he was most concerned about "the level
of desperation" that could arise if fuel distribution did not
return to normal within a couple of weeks. 
    San Juan resident Joselyn Velasquez said she thought aid was
too slow to arrive.
    "They say that it is coming from the United States, but who
are they giving it to because I haven't received any at my
house?" Velasquez asked. "No one has knocked on my door and
said, 'Here is some rice.'"
    The FEMA said that by Wednesday that it had delivered more
than 4.4 million meals and 6.5 million liters of water in Puerto
Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands since Maria ravaged the
    In Washington, Republican leaders who control both chambers
of Congress have said they are prepared to boost disaster
funding, but are waiting for a detailed request from the Trump
    In the meantime, the administration still has $5 billion in
aid in a disaster relief fund, and Congress has also approved
about $7 billion more that will become available on Oct. 1.

 (Reporting by Robin Respaut in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Scott
DiSavino in New York; Additional reporting by Reuters TV in
Puerto Rico and Doina Chiacu, Roberta Rampton, Richard Cowan,
Timothy Gardner and Jeff Mason in Washington; Writing by Bill
Rigby and Steve Gorman; Editing by Frances Kerry, Lisa Shumaker
and Michael Perry)
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