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June 13, 2018

Members of Congress Press FEMA, HHS on Federal Government’s Failures on Puerto Rico Fatality Count Following Hurricane Maria

(WASHINGTON) – United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Representative Nydia M. Velá?zquez (D-NY), and Representative Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), Ranking Member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, led their Senate and House colleagues in 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 federal 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.

recent study published by the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that there were between 793 and 8,498 Hurricane Maria-related fatalities in Puerto Rico, with a midpoint estimate of 4,600. But the Puerto Rico government’s count still stands at 64. The Members of Congress noted that 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. These statistics also influence the amount of federal aid requested for pre- and post-disaster mitigation and adaptation plans, which is critical as this year’s hurricane season begins. Undercounting the fatalities might also prevent victims from receiving 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,” wrote the Members of Congress. “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.”

The Members of Congress asked Administrator Long and Secretary 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.

In October, Reps. Velázquez and Thompson wrote to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) calling for an accurate death count. That same month, Senator Warren led a dozen of her colleagues in a letter echoing that request. Administrator Long replied that neither FEMA nor HHS has a role in the “cause and manner of death determination.” His response indicates that the federal government has failed to provide significant support in recording the fatalities of Puerto Rican residents.  Velázquez and Thompson also initiated a Government Accountability Office investigation on the death count in December. 

Last week, Rep. Velázquez introduced the Counting Our Unexpected Natural Tragedies’ (COUNT) Victims Act (H.R. 6048) to establish federal procedures for counting fatalities following a natural disaster. Companion legislation was introduced in the Senate by Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA). Ranking Member Thompson and Senator Warren have co-sponsored this legislation. 

Senators 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 Representatives 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.), and Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) also signed the letter.

Link to Letter

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Media contacts:
(Thompson) Adam Comis at 202-225-9978
(Velázquez) Alex Haurek at 202-225-2361
(Warren) Matt Cournoyer at 202-224-2292