House Democrats seek independent commission on Hurricane Maria deaths

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Congress hold a press conference outside the Capitol on June 6, 2018. (Circa)

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus announced Wednesday they are preparing legislation to create an independent commission to investigate the federal response to Hurricane Maria, in the wake of new data indicating at least 1,300 more people died in Puerto Rico due to the storm than initially reported.

“The evidence is making it clear, Maria may be one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history,” said Rep. Nydia Velasquez, D-N.Y., at a Capitol Hill press conference.

Researchers at Harvard University estimated more than 4,000 Puerto Ricans may have died as a result of the September 2017 hurricane and the damage it caused. There have been some questions about their methodology, but the Puerto Rico Department of Health released its own updated numbers on Friday, reporting about 1,400 deaths may be related to the storm, significantly more than the 64 deaths announced last fall.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus intends to introduce a bill next week that would create a commission modeled after the one that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to probe the preparation, response, and recovery efforts surrounding the storm.

“For it to never happen again, we need the facts, and that is what we are asking for today,” Velasquez said.

Several members of the caucus criticized President Donald Trump and federal officials for their response to the storm.

“Puerto Rico is clearly President Trump’s most significant failure in his administration,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y.

Puerto Rican officials have said they always expected the death toll to be higher than 64, but Democrats want to know why the initial count was so low, why it took nine months to produce updated figures, and what impact the perception that so few people died had on the urgency of the government’s response.

“Why would somebody give an undercount in a disaster?” asked Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.

Members pointed to Trump’s comments while visiting Puerto Rico after the storm that the island should be “very proud” that so few people died in comparison to “a real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The new data places Maria’s death toll either higher or just a few hundred victims below Katrina’s devastation.

“Yes, Mr. President, this is a real catastrophe,” Velasquez said.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders defended the administration’s handling of the storm at a press briefing Tuesday.

“The federal response, once again, was at a historic proportion,” she said. “We’re continuing to work with the people of Puerto Rico and do the best we can to provide federal assistance, particularly working with the governor there in Puerto Rico. And we’ll continue to do so.”

Caucus members were unconvinced. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., accused the White House of treating Puerto Ricans like second-class citizens.

“If this had happened anywhere on the mainland, it would be a national controversy,” Gallego said.

Democrats noted that President Trump is meeting with FEMA officials Wednesday as the new hurricane season begins, and they urged him to seriously reassess the government’s preparation in light of the new data on Puerto Rico.

“This is not the time for self-congratulations and victory laps,” Velasquez said.

If steps are not taken by the Trump administration and Congress to put more resources in place, said Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., “God forbid another hurricane hits that island, they will have blood on their hands.”

Caucus members acknowledged the political reality that their bill faces a steep climb to pass in a GOP-controlled House, but they hoped to inspire public pressure for lawmakers to demand answers about what happened before, during, and after Hurricane Maria.

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