Puerto Rico disaster response mired in gridlock

Officials are racing to ease the gridlock that is paralyzing hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico.

A three-star general in charge of distributing food, water, first aid and other supplies on Friday said the Pentagon is planning to send more troops and vehicles to help the island.

But while conditions are slowly improving, recovery operations are still running into significant roadblocks, both physical and otherwise. 

“It’s a logistics nightmare,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz told CNN on Friday.


President Trump on Friday noted the difficulties facing emergency responders, saying the effort has been hampered by the simple fact that Puerto Rico is not connected to the mainland. 

"This is an island, surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water,” the president said.

Here are the three major challenges that have been snarling response efforts in Puerto Rico.

Shipping restrictions

The U.S. territory has long complained about the Jones Act, a century-old law that only allows American-made, -owned and -operated ships to deliver cargo between U.S. ports.

Puerto Rico says the shipping restrictions can jack up the cost of goods on the island by nearly 33 percent and often slow down cargo deliveries. Under the law, a foreign ship must either pay hefty tariffs if they dock at San Juan or else reload its cargo onto a U.S.-flagged ship on the mainland. 

Following public outcry, the White House agreed on Thursday to temporarily lift the Jones Act for 10 days. Lawmakers say the move has enabled foreign ships to start delivering aid to Puerto Rico and pitch in with relief efforts. 

A similar waiver was granted for Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

But some lawmakers say the short exemption is insufficient for Puerto Rico. They are pushing for a yearlong waiver, pointing to the fact the island could be rebuilding and without power for months.

“A 10-day waiver … is far from sufficient given the scope of this tragedy,” said Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), a Puerto Rico native who visited the island last week. “Moreover, as Puerto Rico begins the long road of rebuilding, it will be difficult to do so if building supplies cost double what they are priced on the mainland.”

Backed-up ports

Thousands of containers packed with food, water, medicine, construction materials and other critical goods were sitting idle at San Juan’s port on Thursday. 

Officials have since been making progress in clearing some of the bottlenecks.

But there are still challenges in moving the goods more quickly, in part because of massive fuel shortages and difficulties reaching truck drivers while telecommunications are down. 

The lack of power at the port has also prevented operators from being able to lower down the containers, which means they must unload them the “old-fashioned” way, Cruz said. 

“You open the doors, you have a line of people, and you just — whatever you can — move with two arms,” Cruz said on CNN. “You just move it back and forth, and make sure that supply chain starts running steadily.” 

There has also been some confusion over how many containers were trapped at the port, what was in them and who had jurisdiction over the cargo. 

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioPut partisan politics aside — The Child Tax Credit must be renewed immediately These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Lawmakers press Biden admin to send more military aid to Ukraine MORE (R-Fla.), pointing to the aid stuck in Puerto Rico’s ports, said the local government was ill-equipped to handle the crisis. Rubio called on Trump to put the U.S. military in charge of the relief effort outright, a notion sure to rankle defenders of Puerto Rico’s autonomy. 

Jose Ayala, the vice president of operations for Crowley Maritime, emphasized that the idle containers were not the ones consigned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He said it was the commercial cargo that was trapped. 

But those containers still have critical supplies that would otherwise be on store shelves and could help supplement relief efforts.

“The commodities that are in these containers are no less important than the cargo that was consigned to FEMA,” Ayala told CNN. “We have water, there’s still ice, there’s still building materials, there’s still refrigerated food.”

Broken infrastructure 

Getting the emergency aid to Puerto Rico is one hurdle — but distributing supplies around the island is a whole other challenge.

The infrastructure is so broken that it has made it nearly impossible for emergency responders to reach remote parts of the island.

The roads are torn apart, the streets are blocked with debris and fallen trees, and many traffic signals are malfunctioning.

In some places, bridges have been wiped out, forcing residents in isolated areas to ford rivers in order to reach more populated areas where they can try to get fuel, food and other supplies.

Restoring the roadways will be critical to relief efforts.

There are at least 1,500 instances of damaged roads and bridges, which Puerto Rico’s transportation chief, Carlos Contreras, says could cost $240 million to repair, according to Puerto Rico’s El Nuevo Día newspaper.

The Trump administration has already doled out $40 million in emergency funding to help with road and bridge repairs. 

In the meantime, Cruz is calling on the government to use alternative transportation methods to distribute aid to residents.

“Lets put drones out and drop things, let’s put parachutes out and drop things. Lets just get things out there,” she said. “Sometimes the most difficult problems are solved in the most simple ways.”