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Puerto Rico relief would be bleak without Jones Act, Merchant Marine

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With hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate, it has been a tough hurricane season so far, but the U.S. Merchant Marine has once again answered the call.

Recent U.S.-flag maritime actions demonstrate the importance of Jones Act shipping. American owned Jones Act companies like Crowley Maritime, Trailer Bridge, SEACOR Marine, TOTE and FOSS Maritime are some of the U.S. companies leading response efforts. Additionally, U.S. government-owned ships have been dispatched, including those operated by the private sector and crewed by U.S. Mariners.

{mosads}In the early 1990s, the whistle blew and the U.S. needed ships to support our troops overseas, so a massive effort was launched by the U.S. to break out ships from the National Defense Reserve Fleet of mothballed ships. We needed mariners to operate the ships. And we needed U.S. companies to fly the U.S. flag in support of the United States’ efforts.


During this period the federal and six state maritime academies were called on for support. The cadets — college students — were asked to sail ships. Cadets relieved seasoned mariners so that they could be dispatched to the war zones. Further, the maritime academies were asked to release cadets to their respective regional U.S shipyards to break out ships for the war effort. 

Upon conclusion of Desert Shield/Storm the Ready Reserve Force Fleet of prepositioned vessels was further developed and the Maritime Security Program was enacted. The Ready Reserve Force Fleet consists of ships owned by the U.S. government, prepositioned around the U.S., contracted to the private sector and crewed by U.S. Mariners. The Maritime Security Program consists of vessels owned or operated by domestic and international companies that domicile part of their business operations under U.S. Department of Defense protocols, register their ships under the U.S. flag and are required to crew their vessels with U.S. Mariners.

Additionally, U.S. companies have continuously worked to re-capitalize the Jones Act fleet of tankers, tugs, barges, container ships, container-roll on/roll off vessels, dredgers and ferries, investing billions of dollars in American shipyard construction and modernizing ports and marine terminal operations.

Over the past two decades the U.S. Merchant Marine and its Jones Act companies have responded effectively to every major maritime-accessible conflict and disaster that challenged the United States.

For example, following the 9/11 terror attacks, nearly 500,000 people were trapped in Lower Manhattan. The U.S. Merchant Marine went to work. In less than nine hours, Jones Act companies sent their vessels straight to the island of Manhattan. Hundreds of thousands of people were rescued by Jones Act ships, mariners and companies. It was largest boat lift evacuation in history — moving more people by boat than in the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk, France.

This hurricane season has been no different. The U.S. Merchant Marine is on duty.

Specifically, last week Crowley Maritime loaded a fleet of electric utility trucks on vessels to help restart the grid. The trucks will be used by Jacksonville Electric Authority linemen who are now on the island. By week’s end, more than 6,500 loads of FEMA and commercial cargo from 20 Crowley Maritime ships will have been delivered since Hurricane Maria struck the island. Crowley projects another nine vessels, carrying between 2,500 and 3,000 loads, will arrive in Puerto Rico next week. Previously, Crowley Maritime dispatched more than 18 Jones Act vessels loaded with gasoline and diesel in response to fuel shortages in Florida caused by Hurricane Irma.

Crowley’s logistics division is helping Puerto Rico coordinate port trucking, direct deliveries and final mile deliveries. This now includes Crowley providing more than 375 trucks for distribution activities on the island.

On Monday, Jones Act company SEACOR Marine loaded its Louisiana-designed and built U.S.-Flag vessel Liam J. McCall with equipment destined for Puerto Rico, including 10 work trucks, two generators and two containers of relief goods, as well as a dozen construction, maintenance and security workers.

Jones Act company Foss Maritime has sent three vessels on behalf of FEMA to support the relief and rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands following hurricane Irma and hurricane Maria. The vessels will serve as floating hotels, providing bunks and cafeteria services for responders. Foss will have the capability to feed and temporarily house 729 people with its vessels.

TOTE Maritime continues to coordinate with the Red Cross and relief organizations to ensure the timely arrival of goods to Puerto Rico. The San Diego-built Isla Bella arrived with more than 1,040 forty-foot containers of cargo. Additionally, TOTE’s San Diego-built Perla Del Caribe arrived with 1,060 forty-foot containers. These shipments include bucket trucks, electrical poles, food, water, ice and fuel amongst other critical items for the island.

Immediately after Maria passed over Puerto Rico, Jones Act company Trailer Bridge began shipping relief goods on their multiple weekly sailings from Jacksonville, FL to San Juan. Trailer Bridge increased its liner fleet capacity by 300 containers per week, equating to an additional 13.5 million pounds of relief goods, on top of what was originally sent.

The U.S. government-owned ships dispatched this season provide drinking water, electricity, housing, humanitarian aid, helicopter platforms and hospital services — all crewed by U.S. Mariners.

The U.S. DOT’s Maritime Administration activated the Ready Reserve Force vessel SS Wright, which called on the island of St. Thomas. The vessel was loaded with FEMA containers, vehicles and other stores. Among the cargo was a replacement radar system for the Federal Aviation Administration.

The Massachusetts Maritime Academy training ship TS Kennedy was dispatched to Puerto Rico by MARAD after it concluded its duties in Texas in the wake of hurricane Harvey. MARAD also dispatched the New York State Maritime Academy (SUNY Maritime College) TS Empire State VI to Puerto Rico. Both ships are each capable of housing more than 650 people.

The U.S. Navy’s hospital ship Comfort was sent to Puerto Rico to provide hospital services for Puerto Rico. The vessel is crewed by civilian U.S. Merchant Mariners.

I am proud of the U.S. Merchant Marine and their efforts this hurricane season and throughout history. When the bell rings, the U.S. Merchant Marine answers the call. We climb the ladder, we don’t ask why, we ask how high.

William P. Doyle is a commissioner with the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission. He is a 1992 graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where he worked as a cadet in shipyards in Rhode Island and Massachusetts breaking out ships for Operations Desert Storm/Shield. He also served 10 years as an officer in the U.S. Merchant Marine, including Jones Act and international trades. The thoughts and comments expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of his fellow commissioners or the Federal Maritime Commission.

Tags Hurricane Irma Hurricane Maria Jones Act Merchant Marine Act Puerto Rico Transport United States Maritime Administration United States maritime law United States Merchant Marine US Merchant Marine

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