President Donald Trump eased shipping restrictions on storm-battered Puerto Rico Thursday, as he faced sharp criticism for the painfully slow response to Hurricane Maria.
A week after the Category Four storm struck, the White House said Trump had made it easier for fuel and water supplies to arrive to the ravaged island of 3.4 million US citizens.
For 10 days, he has waived a 1920 law that restricts foreign-flagged ships from operating between US ports, in response to a request from Puerto Rico’s governor.
Puerto Ricans have struggled to rebuild their lives over the past eight days in the aftermath of a storm that took down the power grid, crippled cell phone communications and wrecked water supplies.
Hours-long lines have been the norm at gas stations as people scramble to find fuel for generators and cars. Much of the capital San Juan is a landscape of ruin: buildings with all their windows shattered, traffic lights down, and trees that survived now without a single leaf. Some stores are open but they do not have much to sell.
Around 10,000 people are in shelters, according to emergency responders at FEMA, the US disaster relief agency, and thousands more are clearing their homes of debris.
Shortages of food and water have added to the misery and uncertainty amid a frustratingly slow relief effort.
“The hurricane came and went but what it left is worse,” said Sandra Londono, a 46-year-old homemaker waiting in line Thursday at a supermarket in San Juan.
“We all know that aid is supposedly on its way, but it is not getting here.”
Governor Ricardo Rossello signed a slew of orders on Thursday aimed at helping the island get back on its feet, including one that calls for gasoline wholesalers to designate service stations specifically for people deemed as essential — like hospital, banking and telecommunications employees — so they can get to work more easily.
In a sign of the seriousness of the challenge, the US military on Thursday tapped three-star general Jeff Buchanan to lead its response.
Around 4,400 military personnel have been deployed to deal with the crisis.
This, after Republican Senator Marco Rubio complained “there is no clear command, control, and communication between local officials on the ground and federal agencies”.