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Warren, Sanders Rip FEMA for Failing to Provide Accurate Count of Hurricane Deaths in Puerto Rico

"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 Sanders Puerto Rico

Sen.Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) attends a news conference to discuss a comprehensive plan to address the immediate humanitarian needs in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on November 28, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

As academic studies and news reports continue to show that Hurricane Maria killed far more people in Puerto Rico than government estimates suggest, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and nearly two dozen other members of Congress sent a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday denouncing the Trump administration's continued failure to provide an accurate death toll from the storm.

"It's already hurricane season and about 11,000 people in Puerto Rico still don't have power. We cannot leave them behind to face even more destruction."
—Sen. Bernie Sanders

Highlighting the fact that a correct mortality count is "essential" for both "understanding the true severity of conditions on the ground" and calculating how much aid will be necessary for a just recovery, the lawmakers expressed alarm that "the Trump administration has never publicly expressed any concerns about the accuracy of the death count."

Aside from his boast last October that just 16 people had died from Hurricane Maria—an estimate that was slammed as a dramatic understatement at the time—President Donald Trump has been silent about the death toll from the storm, which he "conspicuously failed to mention" during a meeting at FEMA headquarters last week, the lawmakers note.

While the "official" death toll from Hurricane Maria stands at 64, a Harvard study published late last month concluded that the actual count could be more than 70 times higher. Additionally, as Sanders pointed out in a video posted to social media on Wednesday, thousands of Puerto Ricans are still without power eight months after the Category 4 storm slammed into the island.

"Hurricane Maria caused historically devastating damage to the island of Puerto Rico," the members of Congress wrote in their letter, which was also sent to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). "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."

The lawmakers concluded their letter with a series of detailed questions aimed at identifying "how the federal government will address fatality count discrepancies and better execute disaster response and assistance to Puerto Ricans and other communities affected by hurricanes in the future":

  • What assistance has FEMA or other federal government agencies provided to the Puerto Rico government to ensure that officials obtain an accurate death toll?
  • The current official death count from Hurricane Maria is 64 people. Does FEMA believe this is an accurate number? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • Do FEMA and HHS believe that CDC protocols contributed to any undercounting of the death toll?
  • What specific plans or procedures are in place to ensure that, in the event of another hurricane or other disaster, FEMA, HHS, and other federal agencies obtain accurate fatality counts?
  • How many Puerto Rican residents have applied for FEMA funeral assistance? How many of them have received funding for this purpose? Were any individuals denied assistance because the death of their family member was not proven to be caused by Hurricane Maria?
  • Reports have indicated that the HHS deployed Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT) members to Puerto Rico to "retrieve, assess, and process the bodies and remains of disaster victims." The Puerto Rico safety department said in October 2017 that 40 DMORT personnel were assisting the Institute of Forensics in San Juan.

    a. How many bodies were retrieved, assessed, and processed by DMORT teams in the months following Hurricane Maria?

    b. How did FEMA and HHS determine the number of DMORT personnel to dispatch to the island? When were they dispatched? How long did they remain there?

    c. Did the Puerto Rico government use DMORT assistance in determining causes of death? If so, was that information incorporated into the official death toll?

  • What policy changes have FEMA and HHS made to ensure the accuracy of future fatality counts from disasters?

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