Small steps on Puerto Rico hurricane relief as crisis intensifies

For Puerto Rico, Thursday began with some long overdue good news. The administration announced via tweet that the president had waived the Jones Act, which restricted ships not under the U.S. flag from entering U.S. ports. But the crisis is mounting as certain parts of the island have still not been reached by rescue workers or anyone bringing supplies. Thursday, at an event with Democrat Phil Murphy and Latino leaders, there was some hope but also some wariness.

“It’s a good step,” said Maria Teresa Montilla, president of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey political action committee. “We have found that it was a little slow, the response. I would have to say if they had been other Americans, I think the response would have been a lot faster.”

Jones Act repeal or not, the goods that have made it to the island are not getting to where they need to get because of bureaucracy and a lack of personnel to even move it off the docks. Over 90 percent of the island remains without power and almost half the people here are without potable water.

Hudson County Freeholder Junior Maldonado is part of New Jersey for Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief, or NJ4PR, a statewide coalition of private and public organizations coordinating relief efforts from the Garden State. He said the island’s governor is doing as much as could be expected.

“His leadership has been on point, just like the mayor of San Juan has been on point. But we need more. We need the federal government to support this effort and New Jersey to support it.” he said.

New Jersey is home to almost half a million Puerto Ricans, many of whom are still without news about their loved ones. An effort in Jersey City is one of dozens underway across the state spearheaded by New Jersey for Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief members.

“I know the news coverage is easier to do in the metropolitan area,” NJ4PR Board Member Lydia Valencia said, “but the people in the center of the island, I don’t think that even a true assessment has been made of this condition.”

But even after that assessment is made, which officials hope will be accomplished soon, addressing the needs: food, water, shelter, but also avoiding outbreaks of disease and civil disorder, will require a federal aid package in the billions. But even a debate on a package won’t take place for weeks.

“It’s hard not to feel like there’s one class of folks if you’re over here and another class if you’re over there,” said Murphy. “It does not feel like it’s getting meaningfully better, so this needs to be ‘all in’ and I hope Congress moves aggressively, swiftly and decisively.”

Murphy and his Republican rival Kim Guadagno signed a letter this week urging support for the NJ4PR effort, but the politics of disaster relief can be fraught. This morning Sen. Bob Menendez said the White House canceled a military transport for a dozen or so members of Congress who wanted to see for themselves what was happening on the island. By Thursday afternoon, the situation had been righted.

“With the greatest military on the face of the earth, I would get on a cargo plane. I’ve done that in Iraq, I’ve done that in Afghanistan when things are being taken. I would’ve sat on a cargo plane to get to Puerto Rico as I am sure any other member who was going to go with me would’ve sat on a cargo plane if you’re sending cargo. So to tell me that you don’t have assets is ridiculous,” said Menendez.

The price of further delay could be more lives lost on an island of 3.5 million Americans, many left to wonder if anyone can hear their calls for help.