When a hurricane hits, who should determine the official death count: the government or independent researchers? And how much after the hurricane hits should deaths still be counted towards the death count?
After the category 5 Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, the death count was originally listed as 64.
Yet a George Washington University study from September 2018, from researchers at the school’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, estimated the actual death count as 2,975. The significantly higher number was determined in part by including deaths determined to be indirectly caused by the hurricane but occurring up to five months later.
The Puerto Rican government requested the study and officially accepted its revised death count, but the federal government has not.
What the bill does
The Counting Our Unexpected Natural Tragedies’ (COUNT) Victims Act would potentially change how the death toll from natural disasters is calculated.
Specifically, it would give $2 million for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to work with the National Academy of Medicine on a study for how to best calculate the death toll from a natural disaster. The process is currently left up to individual states or territories like Puerto Rico, not set at a federal level.
It’s not guaranteed that the end result of the study, should the bill pass, would actually result in a corresponding change in federal policy.
What supporters say
Supporters argue that a full and accurate count of fatalities is necessary to determine the disbursement of federal dollars in rebuilding, and also to ensure numbers aren’t diminished by an administration keen on making itself look better.
“Death tolls are important. They influence public perception about the scope of a disaster and often determine what federal resources are allocated for response,” Rep. Velázquez said in a press release. “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.
“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,” Sen. Harris said in a press release. “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.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that the originally reported death count was in fact the correct number, and that any attempts to establish subsequent so-called revised numbers are a partisan ploy.
“3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000,” Trump tweeted.
“This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!” Trump added.
Trump is the primary opponent, even among Republicans — Florida’s GOP Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP candidate for governor Ron DeSantis both broke with the president on this issue.
Odds of passage
The House version has attracted 66 cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The Senate version has attracted eight cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Due to the entirely Democratic support, the legislation is unlikely to move forward in the current Congress, but serves as a template if the party takes over one or both chambers following November’s midterm elections.