Foreign ships can start delivering hurricane Maria relief supplies to Puerto Rico, following a temporary lifting of federal restrictions on transiting U.S. waters.
Thursday morning, Department of Homeland Security temporarily waived restrictions, known as the Jones Act, allowing a 10-day period for foreign-flagged vessels to deliver cargo between U.S. mainland and Puerto Rican ports.
Hurricane Maria made landfall more than a week ago in Puerto Rico, but the island’s largest cargo shipping facility in San Juan has only been open with no restrictions since Tuesday, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Coast Guard teams needed to assess damage to the San Juan port facilities, including clearing any debris from the shipping channels and ensuring all the navigation aides were properly working.
Onshore, Marine Corps and Navy teams from the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group are clearing roadways to enable disaster relief supply distribution. Amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) and dock landing ship USS Oak Hill (LSD-51), and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, have been in the region for nearly a month, providing supplies, logistical support, and medical evacuations as three major hurricanes passed, according to the Navy.
Marines and sailors from the ARG also set up a supply staging base receiving around-the-clock airlifts at Roosevelt Roads, the former Navy base now operated as a civilian airport in Puerto Rico, according to U.S. Northern Command. Along with Roosevelt Roads, San Juan International and six other airports in Puerto Rico are either fully open or open with restrictions such as daylight operations only.
As of Wednesday, only 11 of Puerto Rico’s 69 hospitals had fuel or power. Two of the largest, the Centro Medico Hospital in San Juan and San Pablo Hospital in Bayamon, had power restored.
With the vast number of hospitals still with limited abilities to provide medical care, the Federal Emergency Management Agency requested the Navy send hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) to Puerto Rico. Comfort is expected to arrive next week.
Comfort is an afloat, mobile, acute surgical facility, providing the same level of medical care found at a major shore medical hospital such as Naval Medical Center Portsmouth or the Maryland Trauma Center in Baltimore. During normal pier side operations, Comfort has approximately 50 personnel who crew the ship, keeping it ready to quickly deploy. When activated, according to the Navy, Comfort’s crew grows to approximately 1,200 personnel.
Homeland Security’s waiver of federal shipping restrictions was issued after the Department of Defense requested the move Wednesday, according to a statement released by acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke. Earlier this month, Duke issued a similar waiver for Texas about two weeks after Hurricane Harvey made landfall.
In both instances, the Department of Defense requested the waivers in the “interest of national defense,” according to the formal request letters.