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Waiver sought by SBC entity leaders granted to help Puerto Rico recovery

Hurricane Fiona made landfall on the southern coast of Puerto Rico on Sunday, Sept. 18.

WASHINGTON (BP) – The Biden administration granted a waiver Wednesday (Sept. 28) to aid the recovery by Puerto Rico from the devastation of Hurricane Fiona on the same day Southern Baptist leaders joined others in asking for the action.

Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, announced his approval of a “temporary and targeted” waiver of the Jones Act to enable the delivery of diesel fuel to the United States territory, which suffered a massive power outage when Fiona hit Sept. 18. The 1920 federal law limits the transport of goods between U.S. ports to American-flagged and -built ships unless a waiver is granted in the interest of national defense.

Four presidents of Southern Baptist entities had urged President Biden in a Wednesday letter to provide the waiver immediately: Brent Leatherwood, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC); Bryant Wright, Send Relief; Kevin Ezell, North American Mission Board (NAMB); and Paul Chitwood, International Mission Board (IMB).

In their letter, the Southern Baptist leaders cited the presence of Southern Baptist churches – 51, according to the SBC’s latest Annual Church Profile – and the work of Send Relief on the Caribbean island. Send Relief, the convention’s compassion ministry carried out through the cooperative efforts of NAMB and IMB, is operating seven response sites through local churches around the island. Each location is able to provide as many as 2,000 meals a day.

“I am grateful this has now been resolved in a way that will directly help our churches and relief efforts on the ground in Puerto Rico,” Leatherwood told Baptist Press in written comments. “This is exactly why our cooperative efforts are so vital, because we were able to advocate directly to our nation’s leaders on behalf of Southern Baptist pastors who voiced a very real need in the moment.

“While many voices appealed for this result, I am thankful that Send Relief, IMB, NAMB and the ERLC provided leadership when it was needed most.”

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi and some members of both political parties in Congress had also asked the president to provide the waiver, according to a Politico report.

The SBC entity heads told Biden in their letter, “The feedback we have received indicates resources like diesel fuel are needed immediately due to the continued outages of large portions of the electrical grid.”

They commended Biden for specific steps his administration has taken to fulfill his promise to aid in Puerto Rico’s recovery. The president’s prompt declaration of the hurricane as a major disaster and pledge to cover the cost of search-and-rescue efforts “proves you are willing to act,” they wrote.

“Granting a temporary waiver of the Jones Act for the purposes of allowing fuel to be brought to Puerto Rico would be consistent with these moves,” according to the letter. “But, in an emergency, time is of the essence.”

The SBC leaders told the president failing to provide the waiver soon “would undermine your own pledge of help and unnecessarily hamper recovery efforts while, at the same time, placing individuals, families, churches, and communities under intense strain.”

A foreign-flagged ship with 300,000 barrels of diesel fuel from Texas had been waiting off Puerto Rico’s coast for permission to unload its cargo before the waiver was granted, according to news reports.

More than 274,000 customers remained without electricity as of 1 p.m. Thursday, according to PowerOutage.us, a website that tracks power outages in the United States. Power has been restored to 1.19 million customers, the website reported.

In his announcement, Mayorkas said he approved the waiver in response to the “urgent and immediate needs of the Puerto Rican people.” He consulted with the Departments of Defense, Energy and Transportation before granting the waiver, said Mayorkas, who also received a copy of the letter from the SBC leaders.

Send Relief began delivering food, water and emergency supplies on the morning of Sept. 20 to the churches serving as response sites in the hardest hit areas on the island. Some of those churches were recently planted through NAMB’s Send Network.

In their long-term response, Send Relief staff and volunteers will be not only engaging the communities with the Gospel but initiating flood cleanup and repairing homes.

Donations for Send Relief’s efforts in Puerto Rico may be given to its 2022 Hurricane Fund through the Hurricane Fiona project page. Send Relief’s home page includes a link to the project page as well. Gifts to the 2022 Hurricane Fund will support the Hurricane Fiona response in Puerto Rico, as well as the response to other hurricanes this season.

Churches and individuals who want to volunteer in Puerto Rico to serve Hurricane Fiona survivors may sign up for Send Relief mission trips to Puerto Rico at this link. These mission trips will begin as early as Oct.1.

Mike Ebert, NAMB’s executive director of public relations, and Brandon Elrod, public relations consultant with NAMB, contributed to this article.