June 14, 2018

Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Establish Puerto Rico Hurricanes Commission

"9/11 Style" Panel Would Examine Death Toll, Federal Response

 Bill Text (PDF)

Washington, DC - Today, United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Representatives Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), the Ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, 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.

"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."

"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 Representative Velázquez, who authored the bill.  "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."

"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."

"Hurricane Maria was a humanitarian catastrophe and undoubtedly one of the worst this country has ever seen," said Representative Thompson.  "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 federal 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 Velázquez 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."  

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.

Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) have cosponsored the legislation.

Since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Senator Warren has:

  • Led 21 of her Senate and House colleagues in sending a a letter to FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services seeking information about the official accounting of fatalities due to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.  This is a follow-up to a letter Senator Warren led on this subject in October.
  • Joined her colleagues in introducing new legislation to establish federal procedures for counting fatalities following a natural disaster.
  • Met with Puerto Rican families from Western Massachusetts and pledged to continue fighting for a long term housing solution.
  • Introduced legislation that would activate the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) to provide stable housing for survivors of major hurricanes.
  • Led her colleagues in writing to the Internal Revenue Service requesting information on whether the IRS and its contractors have implemented the debt collection program in a manner consistent with the law for taxpayers impacted by federally declared disasters.
  • Co-sponsored legislation by Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to force FEMA to continue providing housing assistance to storm victims.
  • Led her colleagues in urging FEMA to extend benefits for the Transitional Shelter Assistance program to Puerto Rico. A follow-up letter was sent on April 21.
  • Written to the Office of Management and Budget requesting information on how a proposal to reorganize and privatize the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS) would affect the Federal Statistical System, including preparations for the 2020 Census. She and Representative Nydia Velázquez sent a follow-up letter to OMB on May 16.
  • Joined Representative Nydia Velázquez's letter to urge the Federal Communications Commission not to reduce the reach of its Lifeline program in Puerto Rico.
  • Called on FEMA to immediately work with HUD to provide longer-term housing for Hurricane Maria survivors, and joined Congressman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) and the Massachusetts Congressional delegation in requesting that the agency take immediate action in the initiation of DHAP.
  • Joined her colleagues in sending a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos opposing the planned appropriations process to distribute disaster aid funding to colleges impacted by the hurricanes and natural disasters.
  • Led her colleagues in calling on President Trump to hire a Homeland Security Advisor who takes seriously the role of climate change in triggering severe weather events that threaten the safety and security of our nation.
  • Co-sponsored a resolution by Senator Robert Menendez expressing concern about Puerto Rico six months after Hurricane Maria and acknowledging that the federal government must do more for the island.
  • Joined her colleagues in writing to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to request information about the draw-down of Army Corps personnel working on electricity restoration, especially on the island of Vieques.
  • Led her colleagues in writing to FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to request information on federal efforts to restore the electric grid in Puerto Rico, nearly six months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. 
  • Called on the Treasury Department to provide to Puerto Rico the full Community Disaster Loan appropriated by Congress, and to offer terms that will promote the island's recovery.
  • Led a group of three senators in requesting information on FEMA's plans to prepare for the upcoming hurricane season following the catastrophes in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 
  • Joined Senator Blumenthal in calling on the Department of Justice to investigate the contracting process for relief and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.
  • Along with colleagues from both chambers of Congress and both sides of the aisle, reminded Puerto Rico's Oversight Board that federal relief funds for Puerto Rico are intended for disaster relief and rebuilding, not for paying creditors.
  • Urged FEMA to extend benefits for the Transitional Shelter Assistance program to Puerto Rico evacuees.
  • Requested that the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security expand its review of FEMA's contracting in Puerto Rico to include the $156 million contract awarded to Tribute Contracting LLC for self-heating meals.
  • Written to the Office of Management and Budget requesting information on how a proposal to reorganize and privatize the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS) would affect the Federal Statistical System, including preparations for the 2020 Census.
  • Led her colleagues in the Massachusetts congressional delegation in writing to the Food and Drug Administration highlighting the impact of drug and medical device shortages on Massachusetts medical centers after Hurricane Maria.
  • Led the Massachusetts congressional delegation in writing to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to request information on SAMHSA's efforts to address mental health challenges in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
  • Led a congressional delegation trip to Puerto Rico to conduct oversight of Hurricane Maria recovery efforts.
  • Led eight of her colleagues on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee in writing to HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to request that the Committee hold hearings to assess the challenges facing the health and educational systems of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
  • Called for an investigation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) decision to award over $30 million in contracts to Bronze Star LLC for temporary roofing materials in Puerto Rico that were never delivered. (The DHS IG has said it will investigate.)
  • Introduced a comprehensive plan, along with Senator Sanders and colleagues, to address the immediate humanitarian needs in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and ensure that the islands not only recover, but are able to rebuild in a way that empowers them to thrive.
  • Led five of her Senate colleagues in writing to the Department of Defense to request information on the Department's efforts to provide medical care in the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria, and to request information on the role of the USNS Comfort in the Department's Puerto Rico response efforts. 
  • Joined colleagues in urging Senate appropriators to include in a third disaster supplemental bill additional funding to help schools impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
  • Urged Puerto Rico's Financial Oversight and Management Board to request that the Court overseeing Puerto Rico's debt restructuring completely write off the Island's debt obligations.
  • Led a group of 12 senators asking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for information about water- and vector-borne diseases in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Written to the Trump Administration outlining what ought to be included in a third disaster supplemental appropriations bill to address the damage caused by hurricanes and wildfires across the country.
  • Joined colleagues in demanding federal agencies expedite power restoration efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Joined in leading a group of 7 senators in pushing the Trump administration to increase efforts on Vieques and Culebra, especially securing the Vieques Superfund site.
  • Urged the Department of Education to use its discretion to help college students and student loan borrowers displaced or otherwise unable to continue their education in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.  
  • Called for Puerto Rico's debt relief during a Capitol Hill rally in coordination with the #JustRecovery march.
  • Participated in a FEMA briefing on the status of recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Led a coalition of senators in a letter to President Trump, urging him to step up disaster recovery efforts on the Puerto Rican islands of Vieques and Culebra.
  • Held community meetings in Massachusetts to discuss the economic and humanitarian crises on the islands.
  • Pressed President Trump to take eight immediate, specific actions in response to the crisis in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Urged HHS to provide additional resources and better coordinate efforts to combat the growing public health crisis on the ground.
  • Called on the President to use his authority under the Defense Production Act to more swiftly respond to the disaster.
  • Written to Republican leadership requesting that Congress be allowed to promptly take up legislation to provide the necessary aid to the U.S. citizens living on the islands.  
  • Asked President Trump to waive the local cost-sharing requirement for the hurricane response in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and for the federal government to fully cover recovery expenses.
  • Joined Senator Markey in calling for a resolution to the Univision-Verizon retransmission dispute, to hasten the restoration of Spanish-language news programming in the wake of the hurricanes.