It was September 20, 2017. Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 hurricane, battered Puerto Rico. Today, with Hurricane Fiona’s landfall, it’s sadly apparent that American policy imposes unconscionable costs on the island territory separated by nearly a thousand miles of blue water from the mainland. Five years ago, I saw it firsthand.

A private plane flipped upside down in a treetop was the first sign of overwhelming devastation I saw in the aftermath. Electricity and cell service were down across the island. I watched an old man hack at downed power lines with a machete. Gasoline, lumber, tarps, and generators were virtually unobtainable; prices were skyrocketing. 

The federal response generated controversy. The Department of Defense took an early lead, executing missions diverse as aerial photography, emergency route clearance, and strategic airlifts. But scaled-up efforts by other federal agencies brought waste and fraud.

Government aid sat abandoned palletized in stacks on runways or locked inside warehouses for years. FEMA officials were bribed by corrupt (and inept) electrical grid contractors. At the same time, private relief organizations like the Red Cross began massive recovery programs. Telecom companies deployed drones carrying cell antennas. 

Unknown to me at the time, a legislative anchor was dragging down the disaster response. The Jones Act, a section of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, requires that all ships moving cargo from one US port to another must be US built, crewed, owned, and flagged for “national defense and for the proper growth of…foreign and domestic commerce.” 

The act’s intent was to grow and preserve a robust merchant fleet, but in a globalized world the opposite has occurred. Since 2000, containerized cargo has increased by 238 percent to 816 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs). But the Jones Act fleet has steadily declined. In January 2022, only 93 ships remained – 56 tankers, 22 container ships, 9 general cargo ships, and 6 roll-on, roll-off transports. 

The existing fleet is so aged that one Great Lakes freighter operating today earned battles stars in World War II. New American-built vessels are prohibitively expensive. The MV Isla Bella, a 3,100 TEU Jones Act container ship operating on the Puerto Rico route, cost $187.5 million dollars –  $120 million more than comparable 5,500 TEU containerships built in South Korea. These costs are passed on to all American consumers – but they are felt most acutely in its most distant geographies.

In the fall of 2017, the relatively-unknown Jones Act posed a serious problem for disaster relief in Puerto Rico. As an island territory, It relies heavily on maritime transportation for the bulk of its trade with the mainland United States. Only a handful of shipping companies with a small number of vessels are allowed to service these routes – including lines which previously pleaded guilty to price fixing on Puerto Rico routes. The closest supply of needed disaster relief supplies was artificially limited.

A plan to house displaced Puerto Ricans on cruise ships had to be scrapped because the liners were not constructed in the United States. Belatedly, the Trump administration issued a Jones Act waiver on September 28 which allowed foreign vessels for a 10-day period. But this proved too little, too late. 

When the waiver expired, almost no ships had completed their movements. So goods trickled in any way they could. 

Already in gradual decline, Puerto Rico’s population dropped by tens of thousands after Maria. Poverty, a preexisting condition exacerbated by the storm, remains widespread. The island’s unemployment rate rises above the national percentage. The Jones Act’s twin effects of stalling recovery and increasing prices continue to chip away at the territory’s future prosperity. 

With fresh destruction in the wake of Hurricane Fiona, congressional Democrats have requested a year-long waiver for the island. A foreign-flagged tanker sat offshore for ten days unable to offload 300,000 barrels of diesel before the Department of Homeland Security waived the Act to permit its docking..

The situation has quietly grown critical across the rest of the country. Supply chain disruptions fuel record inflation. During last year’s Colonial Pipeline cyberattack, no viable alternative existed to carry Gulf Coast petroleum products to the Eastern Seaboard absent a Jones Act waiver. 

That’s just the beginning. The construction of offshore wind turbines is hampered by the lack of American-made offshore support vessels. Congress’ refusal to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea prevents American companies from exploring the seabed for critical rare earth minerals. American ports lag behind the rest of the world in adopting automation for improved efficiency. 

Defenders of the status quo argue it protects American shipbuilders and mariners, and therefore national defense. But isolating the maritime industry isn’t beneficial for its long-term competitiveness. American commercial shipbuilders need to reinvent themselves to compete globally, like domestic aircraft, railway, and automobile manufacturers. 

Ocean trade is a lifeline for Puerto Rico, even if it’s unobtrusive for the rest of us. As world maritime trade increases, and the ocean’s critical role in human affairs grows, the United States will continue to fall behind. Congress should end or fundamentally alter the Jones Act. To do otherwise would be unjust.

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A version of this article was previously published on the Classical Liberal Caucus blog.

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.