As Puerto Ricans struggle after Hurricane Maria, a request to ease shipping restrictions for urgently needed supplies was turned down Tuesday by the Trump administration. Reuters notes the Jones Act, aka the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, mandates only US-built and -flagged ships may ship between US coasts. In the past, the US government has approved temporary waivers to the law after storms—including Harvey and Irma—so foreign ships, which are either cheaper or more available, can speed supplies to affected areas. But with Puerto Rico, the Department of Homeland Security said damaged island ports are the real impediment and that a waiver would do little good. Greg Moore, a spokesman for the department's Customs and Border Protection agency, noted in a statement that US ships had "sufficient capacity" to move supplies to Puerto Rico.
Nearly 10 US representatives had requested the waiver Monday, with an extra push by Sen. John McCain, per the Hill. As to why the waiver was granted after the other two recent hurricanes, Moore said "the situation in Puerto Rico is much different," noting that barges—which the US fleet is said to have in adequate supply—are what will haul much of the supplies for humanitarian needs. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Nelson Denis dives deeper into the Jones Act, calling it the "law strangling Puerto Rico." Although supporters such as shipbuilders say the law keeps US jobs, Puerto Rico has come down on it for years, noting the high costs for basic necessities such as food, clothing, and fuel that result. Many now fear that, without the waiver, Puerto Rico will "be left behind in this disaster," an energy expert tells Reuters. "This is not the time to price-gouge the entire population," Denis adds.