U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-Brooklyn), who represents part of Queens, and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) introduced legislation to both chambers of Congress that would establish federal guidelines on how fatalities are measured after a natural disaster.
The Counting Our Unexpected Natural Tragedies Victims Act is meant to ensure an accurate death toll, which is one of the determining factors in the government’s allocation of federal aid and its response to natural disaster, according to the two elected officials.
The Count Victims Act is a response to reports that the Trump administration’s official death toll in Puerto Rico did not reflect the number of lives lost by Hurricane Maria in 2017, according to both elected officials.
In December, Puerto Rican-born Velázquez joined Harris to request a Government Accountability Office audit of the death toll after the hurricane in the commonwealth country, and she also announced a “9-11-style” commission to investigate the federal response to the natural disaster to determine if it was hampered by an artificially low death count.
“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 Velázquez, who represents parts of Queens, including Maspeth, Woodside, and Ridgewood, which has the largest Puerto Rican population in the borough. “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.”
A New England Journal of Medicine report published May 29 estimated the death toll was a staggering 4,645, which is 70 times the Puerto Rican government’s official count of 64.
“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,” said Velázquez.
The Count Act would authorize $2 million for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to contract with the National Academy of Medicine to conduct a study on how to accurately and efficiently assess mortality after a natural disaster.
Currently, there is no agreed upon practice of to calculate these types of deaths in the United States and its territories, according to the elected officials.
“The Count Act will make sure that we can develop best practices to better understand the impact of natural disasters and the causes of death after these tragic events,” said U.S. Rep. José E. Serrano (D-Bronx), a co-sponsor of the bill. “It will also ensure that we can devote resources to the specific risk factors that increased the death toll after Hurricane Maria - like the electrical grid failure, flooding, and road closures. This will allow us to better protect vulnerable populations.”
Reach reporter Naeisha Rose by e-mail at nrose