Adm. Buzby: Media Missed the Story on Puerto Rico Sealift


By Paul Benecki 12-04-2017 03:36:31

In a speech at the International Workboat Show last week, Maritime Administrator Rear Adm. Mark Buzby took the mainstream media to task for its coverage of the Jones Act and the American maritime industry's support for Puerto Rico. 

"Everyone in this room knows – or should know – how critical the Jones Act is to our economic strength and security. But this is a message with several moving parts that many people just don't get," he said. "The vital [relief] contribution of U.S.-flagged Jones Act shipping was obliterated by a barrage of false narratives and uninformed reporting." After Hurricane Maria, at the same time that American shipping companies were making every effort to carry more goods to Puerto Rico, they were "falsely accused in the media of delaying the flow of relief supplies," Adm. Buzby said. He asserted that despite frequent calls for Jones Act waivers to allow foreign ships to carry relief cargo, there was never a shortage of Jones Act tonnage. 

In an interview with MarEx, Adm. Buzby gave an overview of the multi-agency, public-private partnerships that supported the relief sealift in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

How did American shipping companies work together to surge additional capacity and provide for Puerto Rico? Was it enough? 

Well, we literally built an iron mountain on the dock in Puerto Rico – there were five thousand containers at one point awaiting truck transport to their final destinations. 

As the storms were approaching, Tom Crowley came in to see me, and some senior executives from TOTE and Trailer Bridge as well - the three biggest companies. They saw what was coming ahead of time, and we talked through what their plans were going to be and coordinated the support we could provide. 

When Irma came through, it hit the Virgin Islands and brushed Puerto Rico, and so they were already doing some work in the area before Hurricane Maria arrived. At least in Crowley's case, they pre-positioned supplies down there ahead of time. They took some fuel, food and water down there before the storm even hit. That's their community, they have people who work there all the time, so they're very invested in the region and were leaning forward right at the get-go. 

How did the American carriers help each other during the response?

As one example, there were power issues after the storm, and Crowley had only one crane operating [in San Juan] because they were lacking power. TOTE [one of their competitors] took a couple of generators for Crowley on one of their ships to get those cranes going again. That's the level of cooperation that they had. They realized that it's for everyone's benefit. We also worked with the four main carriers to find additional 53-foot trailers for ro/ro cargo – I think they cleaned out every 53-foot trailer in the East Coast and pulled in others wherever they could find them. 

MSC and MARAD have also supported the sealift effort using government cargo vessels (the con/ro ships USNS Brittin and SS Wright). Is there enough commercial capacity now to handle the freight volume between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, without federal tonnage? 

Right now it's being well-handled by the commercial fleet. There are about 24 commercial vessels involved in the sealift, and that is handling the normal flow of goods down there, along with FEMA cargo. As power and refrigerated storage were coming back online, as warehousing was becoming available, the push turned to restoring the normal logistics chain again. The desire now is to get the supply chain back to the ordinary channels and to transition away from handouts. 

MSC's Brittin was brought in because of the surge of roll-on/roll-off utility trucks, telephone poles, all of the stuff that would have taken up capacity on the commercial vessels. They could have taken them, but it would have displaced other cargo. We looked at the vessels that we had on hand [in the Ready Reserve Force], but the Brittin was readily available and was a bit larger, so U.S. Transportation Command decided to go with that ship. 

How did MARAD contribute to the effort?

At headquarters, our staff stood up a command center about a week before Hurricane Harvey hit. We were gathering information and coordinating assets from about a week prior to Harvey's landfall all the way until November. I was down there every morning at nine for a briefing on MARAD's work and the availability of RRF ships. At one point we had ships working Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and St. Thomas in support of FEMA. I was also in conversation with the state maritime academies about the use of their training ships, and they were proud and enthusiastic to be part of the response. 

MARAD, MSC and the commercial carriers needed enough qualified mariners to surge their sealift capacity. Is this an example of how a large pool of skilled seafarers is important to national security? 

Absolutely. We were OK this time, there were enough people and we didn't need foreign-flag ships for additional capacity. But we can't really sustain much more of a decrease in the number of licensed mariners, or soon we won't have a surge capability. And this was a small, focused effort, with 24 ships and tugs plus four or five government ships. If we ever have to do a full-blown mobilization, all 46 RRF ships plus the 15 surge sealift ships at MSC, we're going to be hard pressed to man all of those if the peacetime merchant marine gets smaller. It's so difficult to maintain a qualification these days unless you're actively sailing on it, so there's no economic reason to keep it up if you're working on shore. If there aren't enough U.S. seafaring jobs, those people won't be around when we need them. 


The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.