June 11, 2018

Harris, Velázquez Call for Probe into Disaster Death Counts

Introduce Bicameral Legislation to Study How Fatalities are Determined after Natural Disaster

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) and Representative Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) have introduced new legislation to establish federal procedures for counting fatalities following a natural disaster. Introduced in both chambers of Congress, their legislation, the Counting Our Unexpected Natural Tragedies’ (COUNT) Victims Act, comes on the heels of disturbing reports suggesting the official death toll in Puerto Rico reflects a dramatic undercount. The lawmakers argued that an accurate death toll is key to allocating federal aid and ensuring improved federal response.

“Whether it be Hurricane Maria or another natural disaster to come, the accuracy of the death toll has a direct impact on an area’s recovery,” said Senator Harris. “We cannot allow our government’s failed response in Puerto Rico to ever happen again. The ability to accurately count victims of natural disasters will give accurate information to grieving communities, and help us understand how we can mitigate the damage of future disasters.”

“Death tolls are important. They influence public perception about the scope of a disaster and often determine what federal resources are allocated for response,” said Rep. Velázquez. “Tragically, in Puerto Rico, the official death toll has been vastly undercounted, driving a narrative that has enabled the Trump Administration to brag about its response to Maria, while our fellow citizens were dying. This is shameful and it can never happen again. To that end, I am pleased to join with Senator Harris to introduce the COUNT Act, which will help establish federal procedures to efficiently assess death tolls.”

The COUNT Act would authorize $2 million for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to contract with the National Academy of Medicine to conduct a study on how to best assess mortality during and in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Currently, this process is left up to individual states and territories and there is no agreed upon set of best practices to calculate these deaths.

On May 29th, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study estimating that 4,645 deaths could be linked to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, over 70 times the official death toll of 64.  Other estimates by media organizations have suggested the death toll could approach 1,000. 

Senator Harris joined Senator Warren and eleven Senate colleagues in October 2017 requesting information on the suspiciously low official death toll. Last December, Velázquez joined with the Ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee to request a Government Accountability Office audit of the death toll from Hurricane Maria.  She has also announced legislation to establish a “9-11 style” Commission to investigate the federal response to the natural disasters in Puerto Rico and to examine whether the response was hampered by an artificially low death count.

The legislation was cosponsored in the Senate by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

“Last week’s report that nearly 5,000 Americans died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria was shocking and sickening, not only because it laid bare the extraordinary failure of the Administration, but also because It’s unacceptable that eight months after the hurricane made landfall in Puerto Rico, the official death count is still up for debate,” said Senator Menendez. “I’m cosponsoring the COUNT Act because is the right step towards having national standards on counting mortality rates after a natural disaster.”

“It is disgraceful that we still don’t have an accurate, official count of how many people were killed by the hurricanes in Puerto Rico -- this has real consequences for the U.S. government’s response," said Senator Warren. “The COUNT Victims Act takes steps toward fixing this unacceptable problem for future disasters.”

“The U.S. government’s failure to acknowledge the extent of death and destruction in Puerto Rico is shameful,” said Senator Blumenthal. “The federal government’s wildly inaccurate death toll in Puerto Rico has directly impacted the amount of federal aid flowing to the island and allowed the administration to hide the true human toll. This legislation will establish procedures to produce accurate estimates of how many people have perished in a disaster, which will help ensure that the scope of the response accurately reflects the scale of the crisis.”

In the House, the bill was cosponsored by Reps. Brendan Boyle (D-PA), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), José Serrano (D-NY) and Bennie Thompson (D-MS).

 

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