Donald Trump

Puerto Rico's Hurricane Maria Death Toll Rises to 45, Lawmakers Seek Longer Jones Act Waiver

As of Tuesday, 16 percent of the island had power

The number of deaths in Puerto Rico associated with Hurricane Maria has increased to 45 from 43, Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rossello said Tuesday, as Republicans and Democrats in Congress push to exempt the island from a federal law that prohibits foreign-flagged ships from shuttling goods between U.S. ports.

The two additional deaths were caused by a bacterial disease called Leptospirosis, which is contracted when people come in contact with urine of infected animals, Rossello said. He worries about a larger health crisis.

President Donald Trump temporarily waived the Jones Act last month amid criticism that the once-obscure law hindered relief efforts to in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.

The 10-day waiver expired on Sunday night and was not renewed. A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said an extension was not needed to support relief efforts on the island, adding that there's "an ample supply" of U.S.-flagged vessels to ensure cargo reaches Puerto Rico. 

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Monday that the expiration of the Jones Act waiver added renewed urgency to his push to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from what he called an "archaic and burdensome law." 

"Until we provide Puerto Rico with long-term relief, the Jones Act will continue to hinder much-needed efforts to help the people of Puerto Rico recover and rebuild from Hurricane Maria," he said. 

Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., said the temporary waiver should be extended for at least a year while Congress debates a permanent exemption for Puerto Rico. 

"Significant numbers of Puerto Ricans remain displaced and still lack food, drinking water and electricity," she wrote in a letter to Trump. "If the Jones Act is reinstated, building supplies will cost significantly more in Puerto Rico, compared to costs on the mainland. This will serve only to slow Puerto Rico's long-term recovery." 

As of Tuesday, 16 percent of the island had power and 63.75 percent clean drinking water, according to Puerto Rico's government. Fifty-three percent of wired and wireless telecommunications service is functioning, though nearly 82 percent of cell sites are still not working. 

Four more people were killed in the aftermath of Maria, Ramon Rosario, Puerto Rico's secretary of public affairs and public policy said on Tuesday, Telemundo Puerto Rico reported. One of the cases was a patient who died in Aguadilla after a hospital canceled an operation for an infection because of the storm. The person died from complications after the storm. In San German, another person died while clearing a street. In Lajas a person fell from a roof. The fourth person who died was a driver in Moca whose car fell through an area of the road that had collapsed.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan will plan to lead a small bipartisan delegation to Puerto Rico Friday as Congress mulls aid for the island. It will include the chairman and top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee that signs off on spending legislation. The House is expected to vote this week on an emergency spending package including billions more in relief for Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

As for the Jones Act, the Trump administration initially said a waiver was not needed because there were enough U.S.-flagged ships available to ferry goods to Puerto Rico. Delays in getting relief supplies to Puerto Rico occurred because of bottlenecks that resulted from the island's damaged ports and blocked roads, not a lack of ships, officials said. 

Even so, Trump waived Jones Act restrictions on Sept. 28, just as he had done to help ease fuel shortages in the Southeast following hurricanes Harvey and Irma. 

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., called the Jones Act "incredibly important to our country's economy and to the maritime industry," which she said supports nearly 500,000 jobs and is responsible for more than $92 billion in annual gross economic output. 

In Washington state, the Jones Act supports more than 16,000, mostly unionized jobs, Jayapal said. "Without these jobs, our economy would suffer tremendously," she said. 

"To be clear, everywhere in the country where we have Jones Act jobs, they are better jobs, better wages and a better future for our Americans across the country," Jayapal said last week in a speech on the House floor.

CORRECTION (Oct. 10, 12:20 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the person who announced Puerto Rico's higher death toll. He is Ramon Rosario.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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