A group of four Democratic members of Congress led by Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) has introduced legislation to create a national commission to investigate the federal response to the 2017 natural disasters in Puerto Rico.
Rep. Velázquez along with Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), the Ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced the proposal, which would establish an eight-member panel with subpoena power to examine the Federal preparedness, response, and recovery to Hurricanes Maria and Irma. The Commission would issue an interim report six months after creation and a final report at the end of a year.
Opinions on the response to the tragic natural disaster have ranged from the president’s “10 out of 10” to Hispanic Federation Senior Vice President Frankie Miranda’s “criminal.” However, new estimates of the death toll in Puerto Rico caused the Hispanic Caucus to demand an investigation, and other Democratic lawmakers joined in preparing legislation.
“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 Rep. 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. 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.”
NPR analyzed data from FEMA and found that federal response to Hurricane Maria, a more severe storm than those that hit Texas and Florida, was by all measures much less than the responses in the States.
In the immediate response, 1.6 million meals were sent to Puerto Rico, which has a population of more than 3 million people, and 10.9 million were sent to Florida. 5,000 tarps were sent to Puerto Rico, and 98,000 to Florida. The figures for Texas fell between these extremes.
10,000 emergency workers were sent to Puerto Rico within nine days of the storm. 30,000 were sent to Texas. The numbers are clear: far fewer resources were provided to Puerto Rico than to the States that were hit by hurricanes.
“The devastation caused by the hurricanes in Puerto Rico is one of the worst catastrophes on U.S. soil in recent history. The federal response has been unacceptable. Nine months later, we’ve entered a new hurricane season but we still don’t know why the preparedness and response were so flawed, and we still don’t know the true number of people who died,” said Senator Warren. “The Commission established by our bill will help provide answers that U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, in Massachusetts, and across the country deserve.”
The bill, “The National Commission of the Federal Response to Natural Disasters in Puerto Rico Act,” would establish a Commission charged with examining a number of factors that may have affected the federal response:
- death toll accuracy and methodology
- federal preparedness guidelines
- Puerto Rico’s economic vulnerability
- adequacy of the telecommunication system in Puerto Rico
- the overall ability of the Federal government to respond to emergencies in Puerto Rico
- inequalities between States and territories in the context of emergency response
- issues with FEMA contractors