Members of Congress Press FEMA, HHS on Federal Government's Failures on Puerto Rico Fatality Count Following Hurricane Maria
Congressional Members Underscore Consequences of Failure to Have an Accurate, Official Fatality Count
Washington, DC - United States Senator Elizabeth Warren
(D-Mass.), Representative Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.), and Representative
Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), Ranking Member of the Committee on Homeland
Security, led their Senate and House colleagues in a follow-up letter to the
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Health and
Human Services (HHS) seeking information about the federal government's role in
the official accounting of fatalities due to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
They pressed FEMA Administrator Brock Long and HHS Secretary Alex Azar about
the federal government's unwillingness or inability to provide assistance or
demand accountability in that process, and failure to obtain data necessary for
disaster planning and provision of federal benefits.
A recent study published by the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that there were between 793 and 8,498 Hurricane Maria-related fatalities in Puerto Rico, with a midpoint estimate of 4,600. But the Puerto Rico government's count still stands at 64. The Members of Congress noted that an accurate death toll is necessary to understand the true severity of conditions on the ground, to identify potential problems and vulnerabilities, to assess the quality of disaster response, and to establish future disaster-preparedness policies. These statistics also influence the amount of federal aid requested for pre- and post-disaster mitigation and adaptation plans, which is critical as this year's hurricane season begins. Undercounting the fatalities might also prevent victims from receiving important benefits.
"The inability to obtain an accurate accounting of fatalities following a natural disaster that occurred on U.S. soil has real and significant consequences," wrote the Members of Congress. "We are extremely concerned by the ongoing inability to obtain an updated, accurate death toll from Hurricane Maria, and the Trump Administration's failure to provide any assistance or demand accountability in that process."
In October, Representatives Velázquez and Thompson wrote to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) calling for an accurate death count. That same month, Senator Warren led a dozen of her colleagues in a letter echoing that request. Administrator Long replied that neither FEMA nor HHS has a role in the "cause and manner of death determination." His response indicates that the federal government has failed to provide significant support in recording the fatalities of Puerto Rican residents.
The Members of Congress asked Administrator Long and Secretary Azar to identify how the federal government will address fatality count discrepancies and better execute disaster response and assistance to Puerto Ricans and other communities affected by hurricanes in the future.
Senators Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) as well as Representatives Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.), Brendan F. Boyle (D-Penn.), Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), and David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) also signed the letter.
Since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Senator Warren has:
- 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 Budgetrequesting 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. The lawmakers 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.
- 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.
- Led a group of senators urging DHS to take steps to ensure the accuracy of the official fatality count in Puerto Rico 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.
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