With a new study suggesting that about 5,000 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria — well above the 64 estimated by the government — Massachusetts federal lawmakers pressed the Trump administration this week for answers on the discrepancy.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, led a group of House and Senate Democrats in sending Tuesday letters to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Health and Human Services expressing concerns about the understated fatality count in Puerto Rico.
The lawmakers also sought information about the federal government’s role in ensuring the official accounting of fatalities is accurate, as well as how officials plan to better execute disaster response and assistance to Puerto Ricans and others impacted by the September storm.
Pointing to data published by the New England Journal of Medicine and Puerto Rico government suggesting that thousands died as a result of Hurricane Maria, the Democrats questioned why the administration’s estimate is so low by comparison.
The lawmakers, who said they’re alarmed by the recent figures, argued that an accurate death toll must be obtained to understand the severity of the storm, identify potential issues and vulnerability, assess the quality of disaster response and set new policies.
They further argued that such data can influence the amount of federal aid requested for pre- and post-disaster mitigation and adaption plans, like evacuation location needs, as well as the financial assistance provided for funeral expenses.
Although Democrats previously asked for an investigation into the underreporting of the official death toll connected to the storm, Warren and others noted that FEMA and HHS officials said they “have no role in the cause and manner of death determination” and that Puerto Rican authorities had not reported a dramatic increase in storm-related fatalities.
They, however, offered that the recent studies — as well as reports about the cremation of nearly 1,000 Puerto Rican residents without examination of their death by a government pathologist and the island-wide increase in fatalities compared to September 2016 — “indicated that the number of deaths was significantly higher than the official toll.”
“(FEMA Administration Brock Long’s) previous responses on this subject indicate that the federal government has failed to provide significant support in recording the fatalities of Puerto Rican residents,” the lawmakers wrote. “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 Democrats asked officials to respond to a series of questions by June 26, including: what assistance FEMA and other agencies have provided to Puerto Rico to ensure official obtain an accurate death toll; whether the administration believes its current count is accurate; and whether any protocols contributed to the death toll being undercounted, among other things.
They further asked what policy changes FEMA and HHS have made to ensure the accuracy of future fatality counts from disasters.
Other Massachusetts lawmakers who joined Warren in signing the letter were: U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts; and U.S. Reps. Michael Capuano, D-Somerville; Seth Moulton, D-Salem; Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell; and Jim McGovern, D-Worcester.
The letters came just one week after 100 people, who relocated to Western Massachusetts after Hurricane Maria, traveled to Capitol Hill to press lawmakers for long-term housing supports.
FEMA has extended the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program for hurricane survivors through June 30.