Warren, Lawmakers Press FEMA, HHS on Updated Hurricane Death Toll in Puerto Rico

Washington, DC - United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), along with nine of her Senate colleagues and twelve of her House colleagues, sent a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requesting information about fatalities in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria and its aftermath.

  The letter comes after a study commissioned by the government of Puerto Rico found that there were an estimated 2,975 deaths resulting from Hurricane Maria.  The lawmakers questioned FEMA Administrator Brock Long and HHS Secretary Alex Azar about their assessment of the study's findings and what actions they plan to take in light of the new fatality count.

In February, the Government of Puerto Rico announced that it would commission the George Washington University's (GW) Milken Institute School of Public Health to analyze existing records and death certificates and estimate the excess mortality from the time the storm hit on September 20, 2018, through February 2018.  According to the recently released report, there were an estimated 2,975 deaths that resulted from Hurricane Maria in the six-month time period.  This new estimate is 46 times larger than the government's previous official fatality count, which stood at 64 since December. Following the report's release, the Puerto Rican government officially raised the death count to reflect the report's estimate.

In their letter, the lawmakers stressed the practical significance of obtaining an accurate fatality count following a natural disaster and the consequences of the government's inability to do so in the months following 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.

Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) as well as Representatives Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Brendan F. Boyle (D-Penn.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Don Beyer (D-Va.), Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), James P. McGovern (D-Mass.), Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), and Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-N.J.) also signed the letter.

The lawmakers' letter builds upon another letter sent to FEMA and HHS in June by Senator Warren, Representatives Velázquez and Thompson, and their colleagues, requesting information about the federal government's role in the official accounting of fatalities due to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. In October 2017, less than a month after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, Senator Warren also led a dozen of her Senate colleagues in calling for an accurate fatality count.

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

  • Introduced with Senator Sanders legislation to provide an avenue to comprehensive debt relief for Puerto Rico and other disaster-ravaged U.S. territories so they can recover and rebuild with dignity.
  • Introduced with Rep. Adriano Espaillat theHousing Victims of Major Disasters Actto ensure that survivors of Hurricane Maria and victims of future disasters have access to the support and resources they need to rebuild.
  • Introduced a billto establish a "9/11-style" independent commission to investigate the federal response to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico.
  • Questioned the nomineeto head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau about her role in thebotched federal responseto Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. 
  • Co-sponsored Senator Bill Nelson's (D-Fla.)legislationto require FEMA to activate housing assistance for thousands of families still displaced by the hurricanes.
  • Along with Senator Markey, onmultipleoccasions over thecourseofmonths,askedFEMA tostand uptheDisaster Housing Assistance Program. The senators alsomet with Puerto Rican evacueesfrom Massachusetts. 
  • Joined her colleaguesin introducing new legislation to establish federal procedures for counting fatalities following a natural disaster.
  • Repeatedlycalled on FEMAto extendTransitional Shelter Assistancefor evacuees from Puerto Rico, contributing to multiple extensions. 
  • Led her colleaguesin writing to the Internal Revenue Service requesting information on whether the IRS and its contractors implemented the debt collection program in a legal manner for taxpayers impacted by federally declared disasters.
  • 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. She and Representative NydiaVelázquezsenta follow-up letterto OMB on May 16. 
  • Joined Representative Nydia Velázquez's letterto urge the Federal Communications Commission not to reduce the reach of its Lifeline program in Puerto Rico.
  • Joined her colleaguesin 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 colleaguesin 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 resolutionby 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 Engineersto 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 Engineersto 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 Departmentto 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 senatorsin 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 Blumenthalin 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 Boardthat federal relief funds for Puerto Rico are intended for disaster relief and rebuilding, not for paying creditors.
  • Urged FEMAto extend benefits for the Transitional Shelter Assistance program to Puerto Rico evacuees.
  • Requested that the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Securityexpand 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 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.
  • Led her colleaguesin 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 delegationin 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 tripto Puerto Rico to conduct oversight of Hurricane Maria recovery efforts.
  • Led eight of her colleagueson 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 investigationof FEMA's 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 saidit 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 Defenseto 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 appropriatorsto 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 Boardto request that the Court overseeing Puerto Rico's debt restructuring completely write off the Island's debt obligations.
  • Led a group of 12 senatorsasking 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 Administrationoutlining 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 demandingfederal agencies expedite power restoration efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Joined in leadinga 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 Educationto 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 forPuerto Rico's debt relief during aCapitol Hill rallyin coordination with the #JustRecovery march. 
  • Participated ina FEMA briefing on the status of recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Led a coalitionof 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 meetingsin Massachusetts to discuss the economic and humanitarian crises on the islands.
  • Pressed President Trumpto take eight immediate, specific actions in response to the crisis in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Urged HHSto provide additional resources and better coordinate efforts to combat the growing public health crisis on the ground.
  • Called on the Presidentto use his authority under the Defense Production Act to more swiftly respond to the disaster.
  • Written to Republican leadershiprequesting 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 Trumpto 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 Markeyin 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.
Author  Saloni Sharma
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