Harris, Velázquez Call for Probe into Disaster Death Counts
Introduce Bicameral Legislation to Study How Fatalities are Determined after Natural Disaster
Washington, DC –Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) and Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) 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 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.
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 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 on the Senate side by Senators Blumenthal (D-CT), Nelson (D-FL), Gillibrand (D-NY), Warren (D-MA), Markey (D-MA), Menendez (D-NJ), and Carper (D-DE).
In the House, the bill was cosponsored by Reps. Boyle (D-PA), Grijalva (D-AZ), Serrano (D-NY) and Thompson (D-MS).
"The grossly inaccurate death count from Hurricane Maria’s decimation of Puerto Rico is the ultimate disrespect and culminating offense in the parade of errors, mismanagement, and careless indifference displayed by the Trump Administration during its response to this humanitarian crisis, or lack thereof,” said Rep. Brendan F. Boyle (D-PA). “It is beyond unacceptable in the United States of America. I am proud to stand with Congresswoman Velázquez and Senator Harris to introduce commonsense legislation to make sure we do everything in our power to make sure this never happens again. I only wish we could go back in time to correct this wrong this time.”
“Nobody rebuilding his or her life after a natural disaster should suffer the negligence we’ve seen in Puerto Rico,” said Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), the Ranking Member of the House Natural Resources Committee. “Too many Puerto Rican families are suffering additional burdens today because officials won’t acknowledge their loved ones’ deaths. This bill is a necessary step in understanding and confronting the real impacts of these tragedies. We cannot hope for a competent response to future disasters, on Puerto Rico or elsewhere, if the administration won’t even acknowledge their real human costs.”
“The COUNT Act will make sure that we can develop best practices to better understand the impact of natural disasters and the causes of death after these tragic events,” said Congressman José E. Serrano (D-NY). “After Hurricane Maria, it is clear we need to revise the way in which we quantify mortality as a result of natural disasters. Doing so will help provide some sense of closure for families and allow them to apply for needed benefits. It will also ensure that we can devote resources to the specific risk factors that increased the death toll after Hurricane Maria- like the electrical grid failure, flooding, and road closures. This will allow us to better protect vulnerable populations.”