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Sen. Warren blasts FEMA for doing nothing about Puerto Rico’s hurricane death count

Democrats want the Trump administration to acknowledge the real impact of Hurricane Maria.

San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and two dozen Democrats blasted the Trump administration Tuesday for not doing anything to verify the true hurricane death toll in Puerto Rico, which researchers now believe could be more than 70 times higher than the official count.

President Trump and his Cabinet have remained silent in the face of growing evidence that Puerto Rico is undercounting the deaths of US citizens who died in connection to Hurricane Maria. The local government’s official death toll remains 64.

“We are extremely concerned by the ongoing inability to obtain an updated, accurate death toll from Hurricane Maria, and the Trump Administration’s failure to provide any assistance or demand accountability in that process,” Warren wrote in a letter she sent Tuesday to Brock Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and Alex Azar, secretary of health and human services (HHS).

In the letter, which was shared with Vox, Democrats pointed to new research from epidemiologists at Harvard as more proof that the federal and local response to the devastation from Hurricane Maria was “inadequate.”

The research, published May 29 in the New England Journal of Medicine, pegged the hurricane death toll above 4,600 — a sign that Hurricane Maria is likely the deadliest natural disaster in modern US history.

This is the latest push by Democrats to pressure the Trump administration to acknowledge the glaring miscalculation of American deaths linked to the Category 4 hurricane. On Monday, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) announced a bill that would develop a federal standard for how state and local governments should calculate death tolls after a major disaster (there currently is none).

In the letter to the administration, the lawmakers wrote, “As far as we can tell, the Trump Administration has never publicly expressed any concerns about the accuracy of the death count.”

They blamed FEMA for failing to support Puerto Rico in accurately recording disaster-related deaths, which is crucial information in organizing the federal response to major US disasters and in providing disaster survivors with government benefits (such as funeral assistance).

Warren and her colleagues criticized the head of FEMA for the agency’s seeming lack of interest in finding out the real impact of the storm.

FEMA shot back at Warren and her colleagues Tuesday, calling the accusations “absurd.” A spokesman for the agency pointed out that Hurricane Maria triggered one of the largest disaster response efforts in FEMA’s history, and disputed the idea that agency should be held responsible for the accuracy of the death toll.

“The actual counting of disaster-related fatalities is the responsibility of local jurisdictions, not FEMA,” William Booher, a spokesman for FEMA, wrote in a statement to Vox. “Our continued focus is on supporting Puerto Rico and disaster survivors through the recovery.”

In October, Warren and dozens of other Democrats in Congress had urged Long, the head of FEMA, and HHS to work with the government of Puerto Rico to make sure that hurricane deaths were properly recorded. At the time, multiple news outlets, including Vox, had already published evidence challenging the accuracy of the government’s death toll.

According to Warren and her Democratic colleagues, Long responded in a letter in November saying that FEMA and HHS have no role in determining which deaths are related to a natural disaster, and that “Puerto Rican authorities have not indicated a dramatic increase in the volume of fatalities due to the storm.”

Since then, independent research has found a dramatic increase in reported deaths, and Democrats now want more answers from both agencies. Among their questions:

1- Does FEMA believe the official toll of 64 deaths is accurate?

2- What plans have each of the agencies put in place to make sure the federal government gets an accurate death count after future disasters?

3- How many Puerto Ricans applied for funeral assistance after the hurricane, and were any denied the assistance because their relatives’ deaths were not part of the official death count?

4- How many volunteer medical examiners did HHS deploy to Puerto Rico, and how many cadavers did they help local authorities assess? Did these teams help local authorities determine individual causes of death, and if so, was any of that information recorded in the official death count?

Democrats asked Long and Azar to respond within two weeks.

Answering these questions is an important step in understanding what the federal government did, or could have done, to prevent the deaths of thousands of US citizens in Puerto Rico. So far, the administration has not taken any responsibility for the botched response, and has not indicated that FEMA or HHS will do anything differently as the next hurricane season begins.

Here is the full text of the letter: