What a difference a day makes, eh? Yesterday, Donald Trump offered a blunt assessment on why action to waive the Jones Act for the Puerto Rico crisis was unlikely. Others pointed out that even a waiver wouldn’t really help, since shipping capacity for Puerto Rico vastly outstrips logistical capabilities for distribution in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
Today, on second thought …
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) September 28, 2017
BREAKING: White House announces Pres Trump has authorized waiving the Jones Act for Puerto Rico, effective immediately.
— Peter Alexander (@PeterAlexander) September 28, 2017
It’s a smart move, both politically and symbolically. Politically, the White House has had an avalanche of unfair press coverage insinuating that they haven’t paid attention to the crisis in Puerto Rico. As Teri Christoph noted, that’s far from the case; they’ve been responding to it since before Hurricane Maria hit, but Trump himself has spent more of his public time talking and tweeting about the NFL than promoting relief efforts.
Symbolically it matters too, even if it won’t change much in the short run. Trump’s suggestion that protectionism should outweigh a humanitarian crisis — especially when it involves American citizens, which is the case in Puerto Rico — was tin-eared at best. It’s not that it wasn’t rational, but that it was too coldly rational. When Americans are suffering, we put that kind of calculation aside for a while in order to get help where it’s needed, or at least leave all options open to do so.
But will this get more help to Puerto Rico during the acute crisis? Not really, no — and even if it did, it wouldn’t matter. The problem in Puerto Rico isn’t getting aid to the island, Bloomberg’s Laura Blewitt reports. The problem is a lack of resources to get it off the docks once it arrives:
Thousands of cargo containers bearing millions of emergency meals and other relief supplies have been piling up on San Juan’s docks since Saturday. The mountains of materiel may not reach storm survivors for days.
Distributors for big-box companies and smaller retailers are unloading 4,000 20-foot containers full of necessities like food, water and soap this week at a dock in Puerto Rico’s capital operated by Crowley Maritime Corp. In the past few days, Tote Maritime’s terminal has taken the equivalent of almost 3,000. The two facilities have become choke points in the effort to aid survivors of Hurricane Maria.
“There are plenty of ships and plenty of cargo to come into the island,” said Mark Miller, a spokesman for Crowley, based in Jacksonville, Florida. “From there, that’s where the supply chain breaks down — getting the goods from the port to the people on the island who need them.” …
Trucks are ready to be loaded with the goods and precious diesel for backup generators, but workers aren’t around to drive. Instead, they’re caring for families and cleaning up flood damage — and contending with the curfew.
The buildings that would receive supplies are destroyed and without electricity, Miller said. The transport companies that have staff available and diesel on hand encounter downed poles and power lines while navigating 80,000-pound tractor-trailers on delicate washed-out roads.
The Jones Act waiver won’t help get aid to Puerto Rico. The aid has been arriving all along. What is truly needed is an effort to rebuild enough transportation and power infrastructure to get the aid moved off the docks in San Juan. And right now, the US military is trying to solve those problems, rather than worry about tweets or the Jones Act. That is a direct result of White House management of the crisis, and a much better metric than Trump’s Twitter account.
However, at some point a Jones Act waiver will help Puerto Rico save some money when it’s in position to spend its own money on the rebuilding effort — but the waiver will almost certainly expire before that time comes. If Congress wants to remove this protectionist act for good policy reasons, it can do that any time. It won’t have anything to do with aid in the immediate and critical time frame, though.
Trump made the right call, politically and symbolically. Now perhaps everyone else can focus on the actual acute crises.
The waiver from the shipping law, which requires American-made and operated vessels to transport cargo between U.S. ports, will only last for 10 days and goes into effect immediately.
“At @ricardorossello request, @POTUS has authorized the Jones Act be waived for Puerto Rico. It will go into effect immediately,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote on Twitter, referring to Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.
Steve also points out that the waiver might lower costs marginally for charities that are moving goods to Puerto Rico, but it’s not going to have any more dramatic impact than that. Rosselló won’t be in position to do any rebuilding within that ten-day period, which makes this an utterly symbolic move.