US House approves Velázquez’ death toll bill
The United States House of Representatives approved legislation that would establish federal guidelines for death tolls following disasters. The “Count Act”, introduced in the House by Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D) of New York, has been incorporated into the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill, HR 302, which passes the House Wednesday with bipartisan support and is expected to receive Senate approval shortly thereafter.
“For months, after Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the local government claimed the death toll was only 64, while anecdotal evidence suggested it was tragically higher,” Velázquez noted. “We also watched as Donald Trump pointed to the artificially low death toll as evidence that his Administration was responding appropriately, when, in reality, a humanitarian catastrophe was befalling our fellow American citizens.”
I am very proud that the House has just passed my bill, the COUNT Act to establish federal procedures for counting fatalities after disaster strikes. This is a key step towards ensuring a botched federal response like #Maria never happens again. My speech: pic.twitter.com/s6Bo4rNXJq
— Rep. Nydia Velazquez (@NydiaVelazquez) September 26, 2018
Velázquez introduced the COUNT Act, HR 6048, in June. As incorporated into the larger bill, Velázquez legislation requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to contract with the National Academy of Medicine to study best practices for mortality counts after major disasters.
“How death tolls are tallied shapes the public’s opinion of the severity of disasters and, as such, an artificially low estimate can influence the federal response,” Velázquez added. “For too long, the wildly inaccurate death estimate in Puerto Rico was used to excuse a feeble, ineffective federal response.”
After months of study, in May, a study from the Harvard School of Public Health estimated the death toll could range from 793 to as high as 8,498. More recently, in August, an analysis by the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health was commissioned by the government of Puerto Rico. It concluded that 2,975 deaths could be attributed to Maria.
In September, Donald Trump made several comments by Tweet, disputing the GWU estimate. Those remarks drew a strong rebuke when Velázquez and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts led 130 Members of Congress in writing to the President demanding a retraction and an apology.
“It has been clear since the beginning that the President and this White House wanted to under count the loss of life in Puerto Rico to disguise the Administration’s bumbled response to this national tragedy,” Velázquez said. “That’s shameful and this bill will establish clear metrics following future catastrophes to make clear the severity of these tragedies.”
A Senate version of the COUNT Act was introduced in June by Senator Kamala D. Harris (D) of California.
“I thank Senator Harris for her leadership on this issue and look forward to seeing these provisions swiftly approved in the Senate,” Velázquez added.
Separately, Velázquez is also the author of legislation that would create a “9/11-Style” Commission to examine the federal response to Hurricanes Maria and Irma in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.