By Giovanna da Silva

On September 16, Category 5 Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour. Maria set the record as the strongest hurricane to hit the island in 89 years. With millions of displaced Puerto Ricans desperately in need of basic essentials, such as oil, food, and medicine, a little known law regulating maritime commerce–the Jones Act– hindered short-term emergency response efforts causing needless suffering. Further, the act is likely to impede long-term recovery of the island’s economy.

The Jones Act, formally known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, is a policy implemented to strengthen national security and protect the American shipbuilding industry from foreign competition. The act restricts the transport of goods in US ports to vessels that are built, owned, and operated by Americans.

Many economists agree that the Jones Act negatively impacts economic growth. Puerto Rico in particular suffers from the impact of Jones Act protectionism. Puerto Rican citizens pay more than necessary for consumer goods and other materials due to increased shipping costs, contributing to a higher cost of living. Given Puerto Rico’s geographic location, the island solely relies on shipping as a way to receive goods. Supermarket goods, for example, are priced 21 percent more than the US average. A study conducted by the New York Federal Reserve found while the price to ship a 20 foot container of goods from the US to Puerto Rico totals around $3,063, it only costs $1,504 to ship the same container to neighboring Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and $1,687 to Kingston, Jamaica.

Twelve days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump waived the Jones Act, issuing a 10-day suspension. This decision has come under fire from supporters of the act.

The first argument asserts that lags in initial relief efforts were due to poorly executed federal response efforts, not cargo coming into the island. In addition, relief and supplies already in ports faced delays due to the damage in infrastructure and lack of available truckers and gas to carry the cargo into the towns and countryside. This resulted in shortages in food, water, and other necessities

The second criticism argues that a 10-day waiver wasn’t enough time for Puerto Rico to recover from the storm’s destruction. Puerto Rico will have to build new infrastructure in the wake of the hurricane’s destruction. Some are still without cell phone service or electricity on the island. There are around 1,000 people in Puerto Rican shelters and thousands who relocated to Florida to escape harsh conditions on the island.  

Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Mike Lee (R-UT) have proposed legislation to permanently exclude Puerto Rico from Jones Act restrictions. While controversial, this may be an important step toward helping Puerto Rico rebuild its infrastructure and economy in the long run.  

 

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