Velázquez, Warren Press FEMA, HHS on Updated Hurricane Death Toll in Puerto Rico
New Official Fatality Count Almost 50 Times Higher than Previous Official Estimates
Washington, DC – Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) joined Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and twenty additional Members of Congress in sending a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) probing the agencies on what actions they plan to take in light of the recent George Washington University report estimating that 2,975 deaths can be attributable to Hurricane Maria.
"Compiling an accurate death toll is essential to understanding the true severity of conditions on the ground, identifying potential problems and vulnerabilities ... assessing the quality of disaster response, and setting policy moving forward," wrote the lawmakers. "These statistics also influence the amount of federal aid requested for pre- and post-disaster mitigation and adaptation plans ... which is of critical importance with this year's hurricane season underway."
The letter also described the direct impact of an inaccurate death toll on Puerto Ricans' ability to receive federal funeral assistance through FEMA. To be eligible for funeral assistance, an applicant must produce an official death certificate indicating that the death was attributed to the emergency or disaster, either directly or indirectly. Citing statistics obtained from Administrator Long about the volume of applications for funeral assistance received by FEMA, the lawmakers pointed out that 97% of applicants had either been denied or had not received a response. The lawmakers also raised concerns about the GW study's conclusion that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines, which help ensure that medical certifiers know what constitutes a disaster-related death and how to document it on a death certificate, were not consistently followed.
"Given that the death toll has officially increased to 2,975, we are concerned that there are many families who either qualified for such assistance and were denied, or are eligible for such assistance but are unable to produce the necessary documentation," the lawmakers continued.
The lawmakers also asked a series of detailed questions about how the federal government will integrate the updated fatality count into its current disaster mitigation and adaptation plans for Puerto Rico.
The full text of the letter can be found here.
Velázquez has introduced the Counting Our Unexpected Natural Tragedies’ (COUNT) Victims Act to establish federal procedures for counting fatalities following a natural disaster. Additionally, Velázquez has introduced the National Commission of the Federal Response to Natural Disasters in Puerto Rico Act, which would establish a “9/11-style” independent commission to investigate the federal response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico.