In a scathing letter addressed to the heads of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), twenty-two legislators recently demanded answers regarding Hurricane Maria’s updated fatality count, which is nearly 50 times higher than previous official estimates. Although the Trump administration has a significant problem recognizing or addressing its failures, obtaining an accurate fatality count and addressing incompetence could result in saving the lives of thousands of people from a future natural disaster.
Addressed to FEMA Administrator Brock Long and HHS Secretary Alex Azar, the letter requested their assessment of the recent study’s findings and what plans they intend to implement to prevent future loss of life while noting that President Donald Trump still refuses to publicly address the fact that nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans died as result of his administration’s lack of preparedness and basic ineptitude.
Sent on Monday, the letter was signed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), 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 Velázquez (D-N.Y.), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Brendan Boyle (D-Penn.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Don Beyer (D-Va.), Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), James McGovern (D-Mass.), Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), and Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.).
“According to the recently released report, there were an estimated 2,975 deaths that resulted from Hurricane Maria in the six-month time period,” the letter states. “This new estimate is 46 times larger than the government’s official fatality count, which stood at 64 since December 9, 2017. Following the report’s release, the Puerto Rican government has officially raised the death count to reflect the report’s estimate.
“As mentioned in the June 12th letter on this matter, the inability to obtain an accurate accounting of fatalities following a natural disaster that occurred on U.S. soil has real and significant consequences. Compiling an accurate death toll is essential to understanding the true severity of conditions on the ground, identifying potential problems and vulnerabilities (e.g. understanding which populations and areas are at special risk during a disaster, and determining which of a disaster’s possible impacts require investment in preparations and migration), assessing the quality of disaster response, and setting policy moving forward. These statistics also influence the amount of federal aid requested for pre- and post-disaster mitigation and adaptation plans (such as evacuation location needs), which is of critical importance with this year’s hurricane season underway.”
On June 12, many of the same legislators sent a previous letter to FEMA and HHS requesting information about the federal government’s role in the official accounting of fatalities due to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Commissioned by the government of Puerto Rico, George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health released a report last month estimating that 2,975 deaths were related to Hurricane Maria instead of the official fatality count of 64 dead.
“The study found a lack of awareness, lingering confusion, and concerns about the subjectivity of the determination of physicians and forensic physicians in Puerto Rico,” the recent letter continued. “It determined that these problems resulted in ‘a very small number of those completing death certificates…relat[ing] the death to the hurricane.’ 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.
“Other public reports also provide reason to be concerned. The morgue at the Puerto Rico Forensic Sciences Institute has been over capacity for months. Cadavers stored in refrigerated trailers in the parking lot of the Puerto Rico Forensic Sciences Institute have emitted foul odors, prompting complaints. Those trailers might not be equipped to withstand the summer heat. Dozens of bodies have reportedly gone unclaimed because of ‘family or financial reasons,’ which raises questions about whether withheld funeral assistance is contributing to corpses remaining uninterred or possibly even causing them to decompose before burial.”
The letter ends with series of queries regarding HHS and FEMA’s acceptance of the updated official death toll, failure to provide funeral assistance, lack of formal training to physicians, and “lingering confusion” throughout the disaster relief process. By refusing to acknowledge government’s failings and incompetency during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, FEMA and HHS will only place more lives at risk as more hurricanes continue to threaten America’s islands and mainland.