In this Nov. 15, 2017 photo, some roofs damaged by the whip of Hurricane Maria are shown still exposed to rainy weather conditions, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

Lawmakers Call for Probe of Federal Response to Puerto Rico Hurricane

June 14, 2018
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by Priyanka Boghani Digital Reporter

A group of Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill today to establish an independent commission to investigate the federal response to the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico last year, citing reporting from FRONTLINE and NPR on the disaster.

Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY); Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS); Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY); and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced the bill in both chambers. The proposed commission would be tasked with examining several aspects of the disaster, including the death toll, Puerto Rico’s dire economic situation before the storm, and the federal government’s capacity to respond to disasters on the island.

They cited reporting from a joint investigation by FRONTLINE and NPR in a press release announcing the bill, including a comparison between the federal response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Irma in Florida; and Harvey, a storm that hit Texas earlier that year. A FRONTLINE analysis found that the response to Maria lagged behind the actions taken following Harvey and Irma in several key ways. A joint report with NPR also found that FEMA “failed on multiple fronts” to help the island recover after the storm.

“Hurricane Maria was a humanitarian catastrophe and undoubtedly one of the worst this country has ever seen,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.  “It is heartbreaking to learn that the more we closely examine its aftermath, the clearer we see the federal government failed the people of Puerto Rico. The woefully inadequate federal response was an absolute failure to perform.”

In Blackout in Puerto Rico, FRONTLINE and NPR found internal FEMA documents that showed an agency struggling to respond. Faced with a record hurricane season, FEMA was already stretched thin by the time Maria hit. Half of its staff in Puerto Rico were trainees or unqualified for the disaster work the island needed. Key emergency supplies were dangerously low or not available at all when the hurricane hit. The disaster response left people waiting for months for temporary roofs that would have protected their houses from the elements. The documentary also examined how a debt crisis crippled the island’s finances, leaving Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and electrical grid dangerously vulnerable.

FEMA’s federal coordinating officer for Maria, Michael Byrne, has strongly defended the agency’s response in Puerto Rico. “I don’t agree with all of your characterizations of the situation there… I think we’ve done a lot of support,” he told FRONTLINE and NPR in the film. “Like, how can you look at the fact that we gave a billion dollars in assistance out, that we’ve given out 62 million liters of water, 52 million meals to the people — how can you categorize that as not providing assistance?”

He added: “If there’s a villain here… it’s the 190-mile-an-hour winds and the 50 inches of rain. That’s the villain. That’s what did the damage to the people. We’ve done nothing but try to remedy that. You’ve found a number of places where we weren’t perfect. I’ll accept that. Bring it on, OK? I’m going to keep working to get better.”

The bill comes in the wake of a new study suggesting the death toll from hurricane Maria may be much higher than the official tally of 64. A study published on May 29 by The New England Journal of Medicine estimated that the mortality rate on the island increased by 62 percent in the four months after the hurricane, compared to the same period the year before. The study offered a range for the number of estimated deaths related to the hurricane, from about 800 to more than 8,000, with a midpoint estimate of 4,645.

The Puerto Rican government, facing lawsuits that demanded more information on the death toll, released partial records earlier this week. The data showed that there were 1,427 more deaths in the last four months of 2017 when compared to the average for the same months over the previous four years. The Puerto Rican government has enlisted George Washington University to conduct an assessment of the death toll, which is due later this year.

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