U.S. lawmakers question federal gov’t about hurricane death toll in Puerto Rico
SAN JUAN – Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), along with 19 other lawmakers have sent a follow-up letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) seeking information about the federal government’s role in the official accounting of fatalities due to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
They pressed FEMA Administrator Brock Long and HHS Secretary Alex Azar about the government’s “unwillingness or inability to provide assistance or demand accountability in that process, and failure to obtain data necessary for disaster planning and provision of federal benefits,” according to a release.
The lawmakers said an accurate death toll is necessary to “understand the true severity of conditions on the ground, to identify potential problems and vulnerabilities, to assess the quality of disaster response, and to establish future disaster-preparedness policies.”
Those statistics, they added, influence the amount of federal aid to be considered for pre- and post-disaster mitigation and adaptation plans, as well as for victims to receive “important” benefits.
“The inability to obtain an accurate accounting of fatalities following a natural disaster that occurred on U.S. soil has real and significant consequences,” they wrote. “We are extremely concerned by the ongoing inability to obtain an updated, accurate death toll from Hurricane Maria, and the Trump Administration’s failure to provide any assistance or demand accountability in that process.”
In October, Velázquez and Thompson wrote to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) calling for an accurate death count. That same month, Warren led a dozen of her colleagues in a letter echoing that request. FEMA’s Long, they said, replied that neither FEMA nor HHS has a role in the “cause and manner of death determination.”
His response, they said, “indicates that the federal government has failed to provide significant support in recording the fatalities of Puerto Rican residents.”
In their letter, dated June 12, the members of Congress asked Long and Azar “to identify how the federal government will address fatality count discrepancies and better execute disaster response and assistance to Puerto Ricans and other communities affected by hurricanes in the future,” and provide answers to the following questions by June 26:
- What assistance has FEMA or other federal government agencies provided to the Puerto Rico government to ensure that officials obtain an accurate death toll?
- The current official death count from Hurricane Maria is 64 people. Does FEMA believe this is an accurate number? If so, why? If not, why not?
- Do FEMA and HHS believe that CDC protocols contributed to any undercounting of the death toll?
- What specific plans or procedures are in place to ensure that, in the event of another hurricane or other disaster, FEMA, HHS, and other federal agencies obtain accurate fatality counts?
- How many Puerto Rican residents have applied for FEMA funeral assistance? How many of them have received funding for this purpose? Were any individuals denied assistance because the death of their family member was not proven to be caused by Hurricane Maria?
- Reports have indicated that the HHS deployed Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT) members to Puerto Rico to “retrieve, assess, and process the bodies and remains of disaster victims.” The Puerto Rico safety department said in October 2017 that 40 DMORT personnel were assisting the Institute of Forensics in San Juan.
a. How many bodies were retrieved, assessed, and processed by DMORT teams in the months following Hurricane Maria?
b. How did FEMA and HHS determine the number of DMORT personnel to dispatch to the island? When were they dispatched? How long did they remain there?
c. Did the Puerto Rico government use DMORT assistance in determining causes of death? If so, was that information incorporated into the official death toll?
- What policy changes have FEMA and HHS made to ensure the accuracy of future fatality counts from disasters?
Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) as well as Reps. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.), Brendan F. Boyle (D-Penn.), Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), and David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) also signed the letter.