COUNTing Deaths: Congress works to legislate on death tolls

by | Jul 18, 2018 | Congress | Comments

The official number of deaths caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico has been under investigation for months. It wasn’t long after the hurricane had passed that there were whispers of a scandal. How was it possible that so few people died in such a big disaster? How could it be that the death count number was so low, when social media was full of posts of people desperately searching for loved ones lost, and possibly dead, because of the hurricane? How could it be possible that on an archipelago without power and access to clean water for so long after the hurricane ended, that people weren’t continuing to die from the conditions in larger numbers?

Two important questions must now be addressed: how did it happen in the first place, and how do we keep this from happening again? In November we wrestled with the first of these questions in an article that sought to demystify the controversy. The biggest problem is that there is no state or federal law dictating an official method. The method favored in Puerto Rico inhibited the process of obtaining an accurate count. Following the hurricane, poor roads, a lack of telecommunication services, and a backlog of bodies prevented officials from being able to accurately determine who died as a result of the hurricane.

Issues important to Puerto Rico are often passed over by Congress because there is no Puerto Rican voting representative to champion them. Luckily, this case has scandalized Americans to such a degree that our lawmakers have sprung into action. Democrats announced a bill entitled “Counting Our Unexpected Natural Tragedies’ Victims Act (COUNT Act)” in both houses of Congress on June 11. The bill, introduced by Representative Nydia Velázquez (D) of New York and Senator Kamala Harris (D) of California, seeks to develop a unified method of creating a death estimate. The bill proposes working with scientists to determine the most accurate method for counting deaths caused by major disasters.

The COUNT Act calls for FEMA to spend $2 million on a research contract with the National Academy of Medicine to determine the most accurate method for death estimation. The subsequent report created by the research contract would also include policy recommendations on how to create exigent estimates in order to ensure that victims are able to get FEMA benefits. It is also expected to delve into how government agencies can use and analyze future data to create improved disaster-response plans.