By Naeisha Rose
U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-Brooklyn) introduced a bill last week with U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand that would create a panel reminiscent of the one assembled in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept.11, 2001 to review the death toll and federal response in Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.
The bill would create a commission charged with examining the federal government’s preparedness and response to the tragedy that has been estimated to kill over 4,000 in Puerto Rico, according to her office.
Puerto Rican-born Velázquez, who represents parts of Queens, including Maspeth, Woodside, and Ridgewood, which has the largest Puerto Rican population in the borough, according to City Data, was not pleased with the federal government for underreporting the death toll as 64.
“We now know from a number of studies and media reports that the death toll in Puerto Rico is likely staggeringly higher than the official count,” said. Velázquez. “Our legislation would look at how the Trump administration’s feeble response to this disaster was shaped by the artificially low death toll, the inadequacy of the steps taken by the federal government in advance of the hurricanes and, equally important, what went wrong with the federal response in the weeks after the storms made landfall.”
A week before the panel was announced on June 14, Velázquez introduced the COUNT Victims Act, which 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.
An inaccurate death toll count could lead to less federal aid and a lighter response to a natural disaster, according to Velázquez.
The bill was introduced in both chambers of Congress and Gillibrand pledged to stand by the Puerto Rican citizens.
“Hurricanes Irma and Maria were two of the worst disasters our country has ever experienced and they devastated Puerto Rico, yet the federal government failed in its response to these historic storms,” said Gillibrand. “Congress needs to investigate the government’s response and recovery efforts during and after last year’s hurricanes.”
Under the bill, the National Commission of the Federal Response to Natural Disasters in Puerto Rico Act, the commission would consider a broad array of factors that impacted the disaster response, including the death toll accuracy and methodology, the federal preparedness guidelines issued ahead of the 2017 hurricane season, the vulnerability of Puerto Rico’s economic situation, the adequacy of the island’s telecommunications and the capacity of the federal government to quickly mobilize and respond to disasters and emergencies in the commonwealth country, according to Velázquez’s office.
The commission would be tasked with examining any potential disparities in the federal response to Puerto Rico compared to mainland states in America, according to Velázquez’s office, which cited reports that depict a slower and less effective response vs. places like Texas. Her office cited an instance nine days after Hurricane Maria where only 1.6 million meals were delivered to the island compared to 5.1 million to Texas after Hurricane Harvey.
“Thousands of our fellow American citizens perished in this catastrophe. We need an independent, nonpartisan panel to fully investigate and bring all the facts to light,” said Velázquez.
Reach reporter Naeisha Rose by e-mail at nrose