Trump orders shipping restrictions lifted for storm-hit Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Sept 28 (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump temporarily lifted restrictions on foreign shipping from the U.S. mainland to Puerto Rico on Thursday to help get fuel and supplies quickly to the U.S. territory as it reels from the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

Puerto Rico's government had sought a waiver of the Jones Act, which limits shipping between U.S. ports to U.S. owned-and-operated vessels, to ensure there was no impediment to getting supplies to the Caribbean island.

Puerto Rico's 3.4 million people are facing severe shortages of water, food and fuel, as well as power outages.

RELATED: A look at Hurricane Maria's destruction in Puerto Rico

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Hurricane Maria's destruction in Puerto Rico
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Hurricane Maria's destruction in Puerto Rico
COROZAL, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 27: Irma Maldanado stands with Sussury her parrot and her dog in what is left of her home that was destroyed when Hurricane Maria passed through on September 27, 2017 in Corozal, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A car is viewed stuck in a flooded street in Santurce, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 21, 2017. Puerto Rico braced for potentially calamitous flash flooding on Thursday after being pummeled by Hurricane Maria which devastated the island and knocked out the entire electricity grid. The hurricane, which Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello called 'the most devastating storm in a century,' had battered the island of 3.4 million people after roaring ashore early Wednesday with deadly winds and heavy rain. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Fishing boats with severe damage at Club Nautico in the San Juan Bay. Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico leaving behind a path of destruction across the national territory. San Juan September 20, 2017. (Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico leaving behind a path of destruction across the national territory. San Juan September 20, 2017. (Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Trees block the streets after Hurricane Maria at Escambron Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Men walk past damaged homes after the passage of Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 20, 2017. Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on, cutting power on most of the US territory as terrified residents hunkered down in the face of the island's worst storm in living memory. After leaving a deadly trail of destruction on a string of smaller Caribbean islands, Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico's southeast coast around daybreak, packing winds of around 150mph (240kph). / AFP PHOTO / Hector RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Trees block the streets after Hurricane Maria at Escambron Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: A local shop sustained damages after Hurricane Maria at Ponce de Leon Street in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A man looks for valuables in the damaged house of a relative after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Trees block the streets after Hurricane Maria at Escambron Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Damaged electrical installations are seen after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria en Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
A man walks close to damaged houses after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Agapito Lopez looks at the damage in his house after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
TOPSHOT - A man rides his bicycle through a damaged road in Toa Alta, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 24, 2017 following the passage of Hurricane Maria. Authorities in Puerto Rico rushed on September 23, 2017 to evacuate people living downriver from a dam said to be in danger of collapsing because of flooding from Hurricane Maria. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: People sit in their apartment after the window was blown out by the winds of Hurricane Maria as it passed through the area on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: A flooded street is seen as people deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: People sit in their apartment with the window blown out by the winds of Hurricane Maria as it passed through the area last week on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: A flooded street is seen as people deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
An aerial photo shows damage caused by Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, September 27, 2017. Picture taken September 27, 2017. REUTERS/DroneBase
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Maria struck on Sept. 20 as the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years, knocking out electricity to the entire island, causing widespread flooding and major damage to homes and infrastructure.

The waiver, which will be in force for 10 days and will cover all products being shipped to Puerto Rico, was signed on Thursday morning by acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, the DHS said in a statement.

The waiver aimed to "ensure we have enough fuel and commodities to support lifesaving efforts, respond to the storm, and restore critical services and critical infrastructure operations,” Duke said.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders used Twitter to announce that Trump had authorized the waiver at the request of Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello. The governor retweeted her post with a "Thank you @POTUS" - referring to Trump's official Twitter handle.

The U.S. government has periodically lifted the Jones Act for a temporary period following violent storms, including after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which hit Texas and Florida in late August and earlier this month.

Even as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. military have stepped up relief efforts in Puerto Rico, many residents have voiced exasperation at the prolonged lack of electricity, reliable supplies of drinking water and other essentials.

Critics have said the island is not getting the same response from the federal government as it would if it were a U.S. state, even though its residents are U.S. citizens.

DEFENDS TRUMP RESPONSE

Rossello has strongly defended the Republican president's response.

"The president has been very diligent, he has been essentially talking to us every day," the governor said in an interview with MSNBC on Thursday.

Outlining some of the problems facing the island, Rossello said, "Really our biggest challenge has been the logistical assets to try to get some of the food and some of the water to different areas of Puerto Rico.

"We need truck drivers," he said, adding he had asked the Department of Defense to send troops to help with transportation.

"The food is here, the water is here. We welcome more help. But critically, what we need is equipment," and people, either national or state troops, Rossello said.

Brigadier General Rich Kim, who is the deputy commanding general of U.S. Army North, arrived in Puerto Rico on Wednesday to take charge of coordinating military efforts. Military assistance includes assessing the needs of the island's hospitals, trying to set up communications with each of the 78 municipalities and establishing a plan for distributing food and water, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.

In an interview with CNBC on Thursday, Rossello referred to the parlous state of Puerto Rico's economy, which even before the destruction of Maria was grappling with $72 billion in debt. The island filed the largest-ever U.S. government bankruptcy in May.

Puerto Rico would ask the U.S. Federal Reserve and Treasury for lines of credit at reasonable rates as it struggles to rebuild, Rossello said.

"We are not going to have revenues in the next couple of months so that puts us in a bind," he said, noting a number of emergency sources of funding the island would make use of.

A group of Puerto Rico creditors said on Wednesday they hoped the island receives the government assistance necessary to allow it a "speedy recovery," after Maria threw the island's financial future into even greater limbo.

(Reporting by Robin Respaut in San Juan and Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey in Washington; Additional reporting by Yashaswini Swamynathan in Bengaluru and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Writing by Frances Kerry; Editing by Bill Trott)

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