June 13, 2018

Harris Amendment Addressing Puerto Rico Death Toll Unanimously Adopted by Committee

WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee business executive meeting today, U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris’ amendment addressing the dramatic undercount of the official death toll in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria was unanimously adopted by the committee. Harris’ amendment to the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018 directs the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to study how to ensure an accurate death count following natural disasters. The amendment is based on legislation previously introduced by Harris, the Counting Our Unexpected Natural Tragedies’ (COUNT) Victims Act.

“The number that has been published and relied upon for quite some time since the most recent disaster was sixty-four. Sixty-four souls that died,” said Senator Harris. “Now we have a study by Harvard University, reinforced by the New England Journal of Medicine, that suggests that over [4,600] human beings died. That’s a big difference. Obviously if it had been easy to do, I would like to believe that they would have done it and counted accurately. But they didn’t, and probably because they did not have the resources to do it.”

The bill also includes an amendment introduced by Harris that will direct FEMA to assess its policies for providing assistance for water infrastructure damaged by natural disasters. In California, the City of Santa Rosa is currently dealing with an issue from underground water pipes that were potentially impacted by the devastating wildfires that affected the region in 2017.

Additionally, the bill advanced by the committee adopted measures supported by Harris based on her Disasters Victims Passport and ID Relief Act that include fee waivers for disaster victims who need to replace passports and immigration documents, and another to ensure transparency and accountability for any modification to the way disaster assistance is provided by the federal government.

Harris’ amendments that were adopted include:

  • Amendment #1: Directs FEMA to contract with the National Academies of Medicine to conduct a study on best practices and policy recommendations for mortality assessments during and after a natural disaster.
  • Amendment #2: Directs FEMA to look at their current policies for assessing eligibility for public assistance of underground water infrastructure that may have been damaged in a natural disaster. This amendment does not direct FEMA to implement any new policy, but simply requests that they review their current policies.