October 18, 2017 5:30 PM, EDT

Freight Firms Report Progress in Puerto Rico

More Than 9,500 Loads of Relief Cargo to Be Offloaded by End of Next Week
Crowley Barge Crowley Maritime Corp.

The distribution of essential supplies and recovery kits in Puerto Rico is occurring in higher volumes, helping to improve conditions there, according to two freight firms with operations in the U.S. territory that was devastated by Hurricane Maria.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello (R), who met with President Donald Trump on Oct. 19, pledged to restore 95% of the power by the end of the year and has called on the federal government to provide more than $4 billion in disaster relief. Most of the 3½ million residents on the island remain without power.

The deadly storm hit the U.S. island territory Sept. 20 as a Category 4 hurricane, claiming dozens of lives and ripping apart roads and other infrastructure, including the central parts of Puerto Rico’s power grid.

Crowley Maritime Corp.

Officials are considering adopting public-private partnerships to help rebuild essential infrastructure, such as roadways, sidewalks and wastewater systems, the governor said during a press conference at the White House.

“A lot still has to be done. We will come out of this stronger,” Rossello said, while sitting alongside Trump. “This is our opportunity, again, to showcase that Puerto Rico, U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico, can come out of this catastrophe stronger than ever before.”

More than 9,500 loads of commercial and government relief cargo is expected to be offloaded by the end of the week, indicated Crowley Maritime Corp., which added six U.S.-flagged flat deck barges to its fleet. That is a 40% increase in capacity since Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Crowley is distributing at various points on the island, including the Isla Grande terminal in San Juan.

Crowley is working closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prioritize the distribution of water, ready-to-eat meals and baby and toddler supplies. The agency’s shipments remain steady, and commercial shipments are reaching normal levels as retailers and manufacturers resume operations, the company said on Oct. 18.

The company’s logistics arm, with more than 375 trucks on the island, is distributing the relief cargo. The Jacksonville, Fla.-based firm also noted, however, its terminal in San Juan is experiencing unusually high volumes of cargo.

“Given all that the island needs, we view all cargo — government and commercial — as vital to our recovery,” said Jose “Pache” Ayala, Crowley’s vice president for Puerto Rico services. “We are encouraged to see commercial customers slowly beginning to get back up and running.”

Aside from Crowley, Trailer Bridge Inc., also based in Jacksonville, has been shipping relief goods to Puerto Rico in response to the hurricane. Freight connectivity is improving steadily, ensuring residents gain better access to goods and services, Mitch Luciano, the company’s president and CEO, told Transport Topics on Oct. 18.

“The products are starting to move. Things are starting to get out there. It’s just taken a while. Now we’re trying to catch up on all the backlog. But once we catch up, I think you’re going to see it’ll be a lot easier to operate,” Luciano said, adding, “I think that every day that goes by, with all the logistical minds that are involved now, I think it will continue to get better.”

Crowley has served the Puerto Rican market since 1954. Trailer Bridge has had operations on the island since the early 1990s.

During Gov. Rossello’s visit, Trump emphasized the military personnel on the island and praised the governor’s response to a storm that he called “worse than Katrina,” a reference to the hurricane that destroyed much of New Orleans in 2005 and breached the levees. While Rossello agreed with Trump that his administration was quick to assist Puerto Ricans, the mayor of San Juan and other local officials were more critical of the president.

Trump gave his administration a “10” for the hurricane response.

The president also noted FEMA would continue to help officials with recovery efforts, and told the governor to address corruption based on reports that local officials are allegedly sabotaging the distribution of supplies to residents.

“There has been a lot of corruption on the island,” Trump said. “And you can’t have that.”

When a reporter asked if Puerto Rico should be granted the status of statehood, Trump declined to answer. Rossello’s progressive party supports statehood. In recent years, a majority of Puerto Ricans have voted in favor of statehood; but the U.S. Congress has not voted on the matter.

The island’s commonwealth status affords Puerto Ricans with federal benefits except access to federal elections.

U.S. House-passed legislation that would provide $36.5 billion to states and territories battered by hurricanes, and California with wildfire suppression efforts, has yet to be taken up in the Senate. Republican leaders who manage the chamber’s floor schedule expressed interest in considering the disaster relief bill this month.