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. Even with moves to ease shipping to the island, like the Trump administration’s waiver of the Jones Act on Thursday, the 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.”
About 30 minutes before Wednesday’s 7 p.m. curfew, there were few signs of life at the Crowley port besides circling bats. The ground was muddy and the chain-link fence protecting the containers listed to the side. Without street or traffic lights, the area was dark, except for one illuminated crane holding a yellow container waiting to be set down in a row of its blue and red fellows.
The race to move the boxes could mean life or death. The island of 3.4 million is in the throes of a burgeoning humanitarian crisis, without electricity, mobile-phone service or clean water. Puerto Rico’s power grid went dark during the hottest season of year and may stay down for weeks or months. Officials and residents warn of disease without access to clean water.
The devastation is the result of the third deadly hurricane within the past month to confront the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Defense Department.
“You have FEMA personnel spread thin, you’ve got DOD personnel spread thin,” said Senator James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma. “Puerto Rico is the biggest challenge of all of them. It’s obliterated their ports, their airports, their infrastructure, their electricity, and supplies need to go by boats. It’s a very challenging situation.”
The recovery has lagged due to what Governor Ricardo Rossello on Thursday called the “total collapse” of power infrastructure.
Federal aid is beginning to flow, with Marines and Seabee engineers assessing damage and clearing roads. In addition to activation of 1,460 members of the National Guard, the governors of New York and New Jersey are sending emergency teams.
There are more than 10,000 federal personnel on the island, including 7,200 troops, Thomas Bossert, President Donald Trump’s homeland security adviser, said Thursday at the White House. The Army Corps of Engineers has taken over efforts to restore power, he said, including bringing fuel for generators and getting it where it’s needed.
Rossello said 33 hospitals are functioning, 170 shelters open and there are 11 aid-distribution centers The U.S. government has now shipped 4 million meals and 1.59 million gallons of water. Rosello said 2 million more gallons are expected to come in days.
Domestic firms have moved 9,500 containers to Puerto Rico, according to the American Maritime Partnership. Early Thursday, six tankers holding almost 76,000 gallons of fuels like gasoline and diesel were anchored in the waters outside the island, Bloomberg vessel-tracking data show.
"The Federal Government has responded to our petitions to treat this as an unprecedented event and they are doing so," Rossello said. "This is a united front, and we are working together and using the resources that the federal government and local state governments are sending to be able to pass this emergency and put a baseline of stability and put a path forward to building a stronger, more resilient Puerto Rico."
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.
“It’s one thing to move a little car through there,” Miller said. “It’s another to move a semi truck.”
Russel L. Honore, a retired Army lieutenant general who took over the federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said the efforts in Puerto Rico require what he called "expeditionary logistics" — ships, aircraft and trucks that can move goods onto and around the island.
"The only people with that are the U.S. military," Honore said in a phone interview Wednesday. "We need a military commander to run it."
Brigadier General Rich Kim, the U.S. Army North deputy commanding general, will establish a headquarters to help manage the response, the Defense Department said in a news release.
In Washington, debate swirled this week around the 1920 Jones Act, which requires shipments of goods between two U.S. ports to be made with American-flagged vessels, limiting the amount of shipping and driving up its cost. Early Thursday, Trump authorized a waiver of the rule to ease the emergency response. Critics of the rule said suspending it — or ending it — is key to helping the stricken island throughout the week.
The administration temporarily lifted the rule earlier this month to ensure gasoline-starved Florida received supplies after Hurricane Harvey. And foreign ships that took on gasoline or diesel before 11:59 p.m. Sept. 22 under that waiver are still allowed to unload on U.S. soil, Customs and Border Protection spokesman Gregory Moore said last week.
At least one foreign tanker that left Louisiana last week took advantage of the existing waiver to help Maria victims in Puerto Rico, according to shipping and chartering data compiled by Bloomberg.
"The waivers make sense in instances where there’s a need and a demand and we’ve exhausted all possible U.S. flagged resources," said Klaus Luhta, vice president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, a union that represents crews on U.S.-flagged vessels. "But to not go through that process is unfortunate, it’s disingenuous and it violates the law."
Meanwhile, Crowley’s storage space in San Juan is clogged by containers full of goods that normally would go on the shelves of stores like Wal-Mart. Miller said those boxes must move so the company can get even more emergency supplies on the ground.
“Priority right now is on the government relief cargo,” Miller said. “The sooner we can get commercial customers to come pick up their loads, the quicker we can get those shipping containers back in circulation.”
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