U.S. issues ‘temporary and targeted’ Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Fiona

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday granted a “temporary and targeted” Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico, allowing the island to immediately receive fuel shipments the island’s government says are needed as it attempts to recover from the destruction left behind by Hurricane Fiona.

The decision ends days of pressure from island leaders and U.S. lawmakers to grant an exemption to the act, which prohibits foreign ships from delivering supplies from one American port to another. It disproportionately affects Puerto Rico because it is an island and heavily relies on shipping imports to meet basic needs, including food.

“In response to urgent and immediate needs of the Puerto Rican people in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona, I have approved a temporary and targeted Jones Act waiver to ensure that the people of Puerto [Rico] have sufficient diesel to run generators needed for electricity and the functioning critical facilities as they recover from Hurricane Fiona,” Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of Homeland Security, said in a statement.

Mayorkas added that the decision was made in consultation with Departments of Transportation, Energy, and Defense and with the input of Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi.

The statement also reaffirmed broad U.S. government support for the Jones Act, which it described as “maintaining the strength of the American shipbuilding and maritime industries.”

On Tuesday, Pierluisi released a letter asking President Joe Biden to allow non-American cargo ships to deliver fuel to the island, saying that the need for fuel, and particularly diesel, was going up and supplies were dwindling quicker than expected. He added that the island’s government was distributing diesel to keep hospitals and other critical infrastructure afloat, while residents used it for daily needs.

“A shortage of diesel and other fuel products will have an impact on our ability to provide essential services to citizens in Puerto Rico, thus affecting public health, security and continuity of government functions,” the island’s top official wrote.

Puerto Rico was left without power after Category 1 Fiona made landfall on the island earlier this month. Over a week later, private power utility operator LUMA Energy continues restoring service to clients.

Eighty percent of LUMA’s nearly 1.5 million clients had electricity as of Wednesday evening, said the company. But power restoration varied between regions. While over 95% of San Juan and Bayamon region clients had power, only 53% of clients in the Ponce region did. The Ponce region encompasses the south of the island, which was devastated by the hurricane’s rains and floods.

Earlier this week, a cargo ship that did not fly an American flag brought diesel supplies to the island, but could not dock. It’s arrival sparked yet another public dialogue around the Jones Act and how it affects the American territory.

Even the Archbishop of San Juan chimed in.

“The Jones Act should be repealed ... it is immoral,” wrote Roberto González Nieves, the island’s top Roman Catholic Church official.

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, known as the Jones Act, mandates that only American ships, with U.S. owners, flags, and crews can deliver supplies from ports within the country.

The last time Puerto Rico was exempted from the Jones Act was when Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Former President Trump lifted the measure for 10 days.

Shortly after the Department of Homeland Security announcement, Pierluisi acknowledged the waiver on his Twitter account.

“I thank [Mayorkas] and the Biden administration for their continued support of PR,” he wrote.