Sen. Tom Carper joined his colleagues in the House and Senate to introduce new legislation to establish federal procedures for counting fatalities after a natural disaster.
The Counting Our Unexpected Natural Tragedies’ — COUNT — Victims Act, comes on the heels of reports suggesting the official death toll in Puerto Rico reflects an 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 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 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.”
On May 29, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study estimating that 4,645 deaths could be linked to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, more than 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 co-sponsored in the Senate by Sens. Kamala Harris D-California; Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut; Bill Nelson, D-Florida; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York;, Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts; Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts;, Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey; and Dianne Feinstein, D-California. In the House, the bill was cosponsored by Reps. Nydia M. Velazquez, D-New York; Brendan Boyle, D-Pennsylvania; Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona; José Serrano, D-New York; and Bennie Thompson, D-Massachusetts.