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Democrats have a plan to prevent another Puerto Rico hurricane death-toll fiasco

Studies show that the official death toll from Hurricane Maria is way off. A new bill hopes to avoid future miscounts.

A cemetery in San Juan, Puerto Rico, three months after Hurricane Maria made landfall.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

It’s been nine months since Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico and we still don’t really know how many people died from the storm. The official death toll is 64, but new research suggests it’s 70 times higher.

The controversy over Puerto Rico’s real death toll stems largely from this fact: State and local governments can calculate disaster deaths however they want.

Democrats in the House and Senate want to change that. They want a standard federal process for states to calculate deaths from major natural disasters.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) will announce a bill on Monday that would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to work with scientists to identify the most accurate methodology to count deaths from major disasters.

The bill, called the Counting Our Unexpected Natural Tragedies’ Victims Act (COUNT Act), is the first step toward developing much-needed consistency and transparency around government death estimates — a glaring problem that emerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico.

New research suggests that the hurricane is the deadliest natural disaster to hit US soil in 100 years, with a death toll above 4,600. But the Puerto Rican government’s official estimate remains 64. That striking gap is what the COUNT Act focuses on, to make sure local and state governments don’t undercount (or overcount) victims of natural disasters.

“Whether it be Hurricane Maria or another natural disaster to come, the accuracy of the death toll has a direct impact on an area’s recovery,” Harris said in a statement to Vox. “We cannot allow our government’s failed response in Puerto Rico to ever happen again. The ability to accurately count victims of natural disasters will give accurate information to grieving communities and help us understand how we can mitigate the damage of future disasters.”

The real impact of Hurricane Maria is still unknown

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico nearly nine months ago, but the real impact of the storm is barely coming to light. The government of Puerto Rico and the Trump administration repeatedly downplayed the severity of the storm, citing the low death count.

But news reports and academic research challenged those estimates in the weeks and months after the storm, showing evidence that the death toll was likely in the thousands. The Harvard study was the latest attempt to get at the true death toll from the storm.

Velázquez, who asked the Government Accountability Office to audit Puerto Rico’s death count toll and methodology, said an accurate count matters because it influences the urgency of federal response efforts and how much aid disaster victims and their families can receive from FEMA.

Soon after Maria hit, it became clear that Puerto Rico’s process to determine hurricane deaths was flawed.

The lack of national standards is a huge problem

There are currently no state or federal guidelines in the US for calculating storm death tolls, so local medical examiners and state health officials normally decide which deaths count as storm-related. The answer is not always obvious.

There are deaths that were clearly caused by a storm, deaths indirectly caused by a storm, and deaths that are harder to determine — for instance, a sick patient who died in a hospital experiencing frequent power outages. Then there’s the issue of how effective authorities are at finding and investigating the deaths to make sure they’re included in the count.

Puerto Rico’s health officials were being super conservative about what counted as a hurricane death, requiring government medical examiners to review each death before labeling it a storm death — an unusual way to calculate death estimates, according to some researchers.

The COUNT Act would identify a standard process for local governments to do this, by studying different methods to calculate storm death and analyzing their accuracy and efficiency.

As part of the bill, FEMA would spend $2 million on a research contract with the National Academy of Medicine, whose scientists would present their findings on the most accurate methods to calculate deaths and injuries linked to natural disasters. The report would also include policy recommendations on how government agencies can come up with the most accurate estimates as quickly as possible, to make sure disaster victims and their families can get federal benefits from FEMA that they are entitled to under the law.

The study would also suggest ways that government agencies could later analyze the death estimates to improve their disaster-response plans.

FEMA would have until September 30 to finalize the contract, and the academy would present the report within two years.

So far, the bill has only Democratic co-sponsors. It’s one of several proposals Democrats have introduced in recent weeks to address flaws in the federal response to Hurricane Maria.

Last week, Velázquez and a group of other House Democrats asked the House Natural Resources Committee to investigate the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, citing the latest death estimates from Harvard.

”We therefore respectfully request that our Committee conduct a hearing before the August recess to properly evaluate this newly-available information as well to assess the urgent needs that remain in Puerto Rico,” the letter read.

So far, Republican leaders in Congress have shown little interest in dealing with the death-toll saga — or with Puerto Rico’s recovery overall.