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2 Democrats think Puerto Rico’s death toll is suspiciously low and want a GAO review

The official death toll from Hurricane Maria is 64. The data suggests it’s more than 1,000.

A 6-year-old girl sleeps on a cot in her grandmother’s garage in Vieques, Puerto Rico, on November 26, 2017.
Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images

Two Democratic members of Congress are pushing for a federal investigation of hurricane-related deaths in Puerto Rico in light of mounting evidence suggesting that the official figure of 64 deaths has been “artificially suppressed.”

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office on Wednesday citing analyses by Vox, The New York Times, and other media outlets that found the actual death toll may be at least 1,000. They’re asking the GAO to audit and evaluate the Puerto Rican government’s methodology in calculating the death toll.

“Donald Trump came to Puerto Rico and shamefully bragged that the death toll was something to be proud of,” Velázquez said in a statement. “In the meantime, every credible statistical analysis suggests that the actual loss of life is staggeringly higher than the official numbers. We need an impartial analysis of how many people have died and are dying from Maria in Puerto Rico so the public fully grasps the magnitude of this humanitarian crisis and our government responds appropriately.”

As Vox reported, social science researchers who used mortality data from the Puerto Rico Vital Statistics System to compare the historical death averages for September and October to deaths this year found that the number of people who died from the storm is closer to 1,085. A New York Times analysis of similar data found that the death toll could be at least 1,052.

If the government’s death toll is indeed as inaccurate as these analyses suggest it is, there are immediate, serious consequences for the people of Puerto Rico, the lawmakers said.

“In coming weeks, as Congress considers additional aid for hurricane-impacted areas, including Puerto Rico, the official death count will likely shape the scope and direction of federal assistance,” Velázquez and Thompson wrote in the letter.

Velázquez and Thompson have been pressing for a federal review of the death count since October, after Vox and other media outlets found evidence that dozens of hurricane deaths were not included in the government's count.

In early October, they asked the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, to conduct an audit on Puerto Rico’s death count. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey then demanded the same.

In the letter to the GAO, they say they were rebuffed by FEMA administrator Brock Long, who told them last week that the agency plays no role in determining cause of deaths.

Now they are hoping the GAO will take the lead. The nonpartisan congressional watchdog’s role includes “auditing agency operations to determine whether federal funds are being spent efficiently and effectively.”

Here’s what Velázquez and Thompson are requesting:

  • An audit of Puerto Rico’s death toll methodology
  • An explanation of whether GAO believes with any confidence that the official death count offered by the Puerto Rican government reflects the death toll on the Island from Maria
  • An evaluation of why this methodology is or is not sufficient in accurately examining deaths from natural disasters
  • An explanation of how Puerto Rico’s procedures in this area differ from other states or localities
  • A summary of the most widely used methods for determining death counts by all states and localities in the US
  • Recommendations for improving this process in Puerto Rico and providing uniformity for death counts during future disasters in other states and localities

Read the full letter below: