US president Donald Trump today waived a law that had been limiting the number of boats that can deliver aid to Puerto Rico—eight days after hurricane Maria devastated the island.
The Trump administration has been under fire for its slow response to the disaster. Calls from Congress members to suspend the Jones Act, a 1920 law that prohibits foreign boats from shuttling goods between US harbors, started mounting early this week. On Sept. 25, a group of House members sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the rule, asking that it be lifted for one year to make it easier for crucial supplies such as fuel and food to reach the island.
It was followed by requests from senators Marco Rubio, from Florida, and Arizona’s John McCain, a longtime advocate for eradicating the law altogether. Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló also made the petition.
Trump’s waiver is in response to Rosselló’s request, according to the White House. It will last 10 days, and ensure that “all options are available to move and distribute goods to the people of Puerto Rico,” Homeland Security acting secretary Elaine Duke said in a statement.
The Jones Act was originally designed to promote the US ship-building industry after World War I. These days, it has the unintended effect of reducing to a handful the number of shipping companies that can transport products to Puerto Rico. This raises the costs of imported goods—according to one study, to twice as much as in the neighboring US Virgin Islands, which are exempt from the law. That’s why locals have long argued that the act needs to be rescinded.
The waiver will immediately increase the number of available boats, likely reducing the cost of shipping emergency supplies. But some argue that the islanders will need those lower prices to stretch well beyond 10 days.
With its government finances in a shambles, Puerto Rico needs all the help it can get. Even before Maria hit, the island relied heavily on imports. Now, with much of the territory’s productive base hammered by the storm, it will be even more dependent on goods from abroad.