The federal government finally appears to be putting its efforts to aid Puerto Rico into high gear, but it is unconscionable that it has taken so long. Before the island had a chance to recover from the first blow dealt by Hurricane Irma on Sept. 6, Hurricane Maria left it in ruins, without power and drinkable water and with rapidly diminishing supplies of food.
But the federal response to this devastation has been markedly different from that to the hurricanes that hit Texas and Florida. It was only after intense public pressure began mounting that President Donald Trump became seriously engaged. Trump finally issued a waiver midweek from the onerous Jones Act, which requires that cargo delivered in U.S. waters be delivered by U.S.-flagged ships, made, owned and crewed by Americans. It has become routine for presidents to issue waivers after disasters. George W. Bush did it after Katrina. So did Barack Obama after Sandy. Trump quickly issued waivers for ports in Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. But for some reason, when it came to Puerto Rico, officials initially refused. Trump cited the objections of the shipping industry, which profits from the Jones Act.
Even now, the State Department has confirmed that evacuees — many of whom have lost everything — are being forced to sign promissory notes pledging to repay evacuation costs. Those costs should be waived immediately.
It also is time to start long-range plans to rebuild an island the U.S. has treated as an afterthought for a century, ever since claiming it as part of the spoils of the Spanish-American War. Every one of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million inhabitants is American by birth, living on American soil. But they have not one voting representative in the federal government that oversees them. If the island’s economy is crippled with debt and its infrastructure weak, as Trump noted, Congress and the federal government had a role in that. One 2012 study showed the Jones Act alone had saddled Puerto Rico with $17 billion in extra shipping costs, doubling the price of goods. Meanwhile, nearby U.S. Virgin Islands is exempted from the act.
When Trump visits the island next week, he should bring his developer’s eye and lay the foundation not just for recovery, but prosperity. For too long, this American territory has been treated more like a vestigial colony instead of the gem it is.
From Minnesota, Camp Ripley has shipped medical supplies to Puerto Rico, and seven National Guard members have been deployed as part of a larger force headed to the island and more may be done. To contribute directly to relief efforts, go to www.UnitedforPuertoRico.com. Locally, the St. Paul Foundation has created El Fondo Boricua (the Puerto Rican fund), matching donations up to $250 through Oct. 19.