The House passed a bill Wednesday that would set a standard for tallying the death toll in natural disasters in an attempt to prevent the types of inaccuracies that followed last year’s Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
The Count Victims Act, introduced by Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), would direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Academy of Medicine to conduct a two-year study of the best ways to count mortality.
The official Maria death toll stood at 64 for almost a year after the hurricane pummelled Puerto Rico, until Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, acting on a report commissioned by his government, raised it last month from 64 to 2,975.
“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 said in a statement. “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.”
Rosselló acknowledged the confusion over the official death tally in August.
“We didn’t realize until a little later that it was totally insufficient, and this is all due to the fact that the doctors were responsible for determining the cause of death, but unfortunately, there was no formal process to prepare them for the devastation,” Rosselló said.
Trump denied the higher figure after the release of the study and accused Democrats of making up “really large numbers” to make him “look as bad as possible.”
FEMA administrator Brock Long, a Trump appointee, backed the president’s disavowal of the toll, claiming the agency “doesn’t count deaths.”