Carper Joins Harris, Velázquez to Call for Probe into Disaster Death Counts

Lawmakers introduce bicameral legislation to study how fatalities are determined following natural disasters, like Hurricane Maria

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.) joined his colleagues in the House and Senate to introduce new legislation to establish federal procedures for counting fatalities following a natural disaster. The Counting Our Unexpected Natural Tragedies’ (COUNT) Victims Act, comes on the heels of disturbing reports suggesting the official death toll in Puerto Rico reflects a dramatic undercount. The lawmakers argued that an accurate death toll is key to allocating federal aid and ensuring improved federal response.  

The COUNT Act would authorize $2 million for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to contract with the National Academy of Medicine to conduct a study on how to best assess mortality during and in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Currently, this process is left up to individual states and territories and there is no agreed upon set of best practices to calculate these deaths.

“One of government’s most sacred responsibilities during and after a disaster is to provide timely and accurate information to its citizens. To be so inaccurate regarding the loss of American lives from Hurricane Maria nearly a year after the storm made landfall is both shameful and deeply concerning. If we don’t have a clear and honest picture of the toll Hurricane Maria took on the island of Puerto Rico and the Americans living there, we cannot possibly respond in an adequate way to this disaster—or to the next one,” said Senator Carper. “This is as basic as it gets. As extreme weather events become more frequent and more severe, we must be prepared to deal with the potentially devastating effects and that means responding in an appropriate way based on accurate information.”

“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,” said Senator Harris. “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.”

“Death tolls are important. They influence public perception about the scope of a disaster and often determine what federal resources are allocated for response,” said Rep. Velázquez. “Tragically, in Puerto Rico, the official death toll has been vastly undercounted, driving a narrative that has enabled the Trump Administration to brag about its response to Maria, while our fellow citizens were dying. This is shameful and it can never happen again. To that end, I am pleased to join with Senator Harris to introduce the COUNT Act, which will help establish federal procedures to efficiently assess death tolls.”

On May 29th, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study estimating that 4,645 deaths could be linked to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, over 70 times the official death toll of 64. Other estimates by media organizations have suggested the death toll could approach 1,000. 

The legislation was cosponsored in the Senate by Senators Kamila Harris (D-Calif.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). In the House, the bill was cosponsored by Reps. Nydia M. Velazquez (D-N.Y.), Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), José Serrano (D-N.Y.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Mass.).