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June 14, 2018

Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Establish Puerto Rico Hurricanes Commission

(WASHINGTON) - Today, Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY), Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced legislation to establish a “9/11-style” independent commission to investigate the federal response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico.

Introduced in both chambers of Congress, the bill would create a commission charged with examining the federal government’s preparedness and response to a tragedy that it has been estimated may have killed 4,645 or more people in Puerto Rico.

“We now know from a number of studies and media reports that the death toll in Puerto Rico is likely staggeringly higher than the official count,” said Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) who authored the legislation.  “Our legislation would look at how the Trump Administration’s feeble response to this disaster was shaped by the artificially low death toll, the inadequacy of the steps taken by the federal government in advance of the hurricanes and, equally important, what went wrong with the federal response in the weeks after the storms made landfall.  Thousands of our fellow American citizens perished in this catastrophe.  We need an independent, nonpartisan panel to fully investigate and bring all the facts to light.”

“Hurricane Maria was a humanitarian catastrophe and undoubtedly one of the worst this country has ever seen,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS).  “It is heartbreaking to learn that the more we closely examine its aftermath, the clearer we see the federal government failed the people of Puerto Rico.  The woefully inadequate response was an absolute failure to perform.  Because this Administration is doing little to get to the bottom of what happened in Puerto Rico and provide answers to the American public, we need an independent commission to finally launch this effort.  I thank Congresswoman Velazquez for leading this effort and looking forward to working with her to get to the bottom of what happened in Puerto Rico so we can ensure it will not happen again.”

“Hurricanes Irma and Maria were two of the worst disasters our country has ever experienced and they devastated Puerto Rico, yet the federal government failed in its response to these historic storms,” said Senator Gillibrand. “Congress needs to investigate the government’s response and recovery efforts during and after last year’s hurricanes, and I am proud to introduce this legislation to create a federal 9/11-style commission to get to the bottom of what went wrong. As this year’s hurricane season begins, we must all pledge to stand with our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico, and I will do everything in my power to pass this important legislation into law.”

“The devastation caused by the hurricanes in Puerto Rico is one of the worst catastrophes on U.S. soil in recent history. The federal response has been unacceptable. Nine months later, we've entered a new hurricane season but we still don’t know why the preparedness and response were so flawed, and we still don't know the true number of people who died,” said Senator Warren. “The Commission established by our bill will help provide answers that U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, in Massachusetts, and across the country deserve.”

Under the bill, “The National Commission of the Federal Response to Natural Disasters in Puerto Rico Act,” the Commission would consider a broad array of factors that impacted the disaster response. These would include: death toll accuracy and methodology; federal preparedness guidelines issued ahead of the 2017 hurricane season; the vulnerability of Puerto Rico’s economic situation; adequacy of the Island’s telecommunications; and the capacity of the Federal government to quickly mobilize and respond to disasters and emergencies in Puerto Rico.

Additionally, the Commission would be tasked with examining any potential disparities in the federal response to Puerto Rico compared with 2017 Mainland disasters. According to news reports, in multiple instances, the response in Puerto Rico was slower and less effective than in places like Texas after Hurricane Harvey. For example, nine days after Maria, just 1.6 million meals were delivered to Puerto Rico while 10.9 million were delivered in the same period after Irma struck Florida and 5.1 million to Texas after Harvey. Compounding a lackluster federal response was a series of botched FEMA contracts that delayed the delivery of crucial supplies such as tarps and meals.

A copy of the legislation is available online here

Legislation fact sheet is available here. 

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Media contact: Adam Comis at (202) 225-9978