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Hospital Ship Arrives in Puerto Rico

October 04, 2017 | The Maritime Executive | Website

The Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort has berthed at a pier in downtown San Juan, bringing 750 Navy medical personnel, 12 operating rooms and 250 hospital beds to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Comfort has a storied history. She provided relief during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, responded to the September 11 attacks in New York City and supported combat personnel during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Her presence in San Juan is much needed: all but 10 of the island's hospitals are running on generators, and until recently, many had to stop operations for hours or days at a time due to fuel shortages.

She joins the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge, USS Oak Hill and the Kearsarge's embarked Marine Corps unit, the 26th MEU, as part of the Navy relief effort. The amphib USS Wasp is also under way for Puerto Rico, carrying 15 medium- and heavy-lift helicopters to help with the logistics problems on shore. Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rossello says that the island's severe difficulties with transportation and distribution continue: 19 key roads remain blocked two weeks after the hurricane made landfall.

Several hours after the Comfort’s arrival, President Donald Trump landed at nearby Muñiz Air National Guard Base for a goodwill tour. He briefly visited USS Kearsarge to meet with military and civilian leaders about the relief effort. On his return flight to the mainland, he told reporters that it was a "terrific visit," and that "we only heard thank-yous" about the federal response effort.

Tankers arrive to replenish fuel stocks

Puerto Rico's main energy ports – Yabucoa, Ponce, Guayanilla, and San Juan – have all reopened for business. Reuters identified ten product and gas tankers presently anchored or berthed in these key ports, with the exclusion of Ponce, which has not yet received any shipments.

Cashman Dredging and Marine Contracting Company finished repairs at the Port of Yabucoa over the weekend, and the port received its first vessel since the storm on Sunday, according to Cashman EVP Frank J. Belesimo. Yabucoa is the largest fuel terminal on the island, but as it operates as a private port, the Coast Guard did not assist with the restoration process, according to a spokesman for USCG 7th District Southeast.

White House does not support permanent Jones Act exemption

In Washington, a reporter with conservative outlet The Daily Signal asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders whether Trump would sign legislation to make Puerto Rico's temporary Jones Act cabotage waiver permanent. The Jones Act is a key policy tool for the maintenance of America's sealift capacity and shipping industrial base, but critics contend that it raises the cost of transporting goods to debt-burdened Puerto Rico. Senators John McCain and Mike Lee have introduced a bill to permanently exempt the island from the terms if the Act. Sanders said that she doesn't "think that's something that's necessary at this time . . . if we deemed that it was, we could have that discussion then."