Warren, Lawmakers Press FEMA, HHS on Updated Hurricane Death Toll in Puerto Rico
Letter Comes After Puerto Rico-Commissioned Study Found an Estimated 2,975 Deaths Due to Hurricane Maria
New Official Fatality Count Almost 50 Times Higher than Previous Official Estimates
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.