Today, following the Harvard study, I announced legislation to establish a 9/11-style commission to investigate death toll in Puerto Rico after #Maria, the federal response and how that response was shaped by the low, "official" death count. We need the truth! @HispanicCaucuspic.twitter.com/u6nm4OXhHq— Rep. Nydia Velazquez (@NydiaVelazquez) June 6, 2018
Ever since a harrowing estimate from Harvard University revealed nearly 5,000 Puerto Ricans perished as a result of Hurricane Maria last year, the Trump administration has been facing heavy backlash as the latest death toll was reportedly70 times higher than the official government tally of 64.
In fact, the New England Journal of Medicine study claimed the number of deaths in the storm-ravaged island might have surpassed the causalities caused by 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina combined.
As per the latest estimate, 4,645 Puerto Ricans died due to the storm, which if compared to 2,997 people killed during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and 1,833 people perished during the Hurricane Katrina in 2005, just goes to confirm the result of the study.
In light of such alarming revelations, the Hispanic members of the Congress came into action and called for the creation of an independent commission to investigate how deaths have been counted from Hurricane Maria and the federal response in the storm’s aftermath.
During the news conference, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus argued contradictory death estimates led President Donald Trump into downplaying the disastrous aftermath of the hurricane.
In fact, last year, when reporters asked him what he would grade himself, on a scale of 1 to 10, regarding his administration's response to the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the president responded in a heartbeat, "I would say it’s a 10."
"We need an analysis of how this low death count may have shaped the inadequate federal response, and this goes to the heart of the issue here,” said Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y. “This is the argument, this is the narrative that defines the kind of response that Puerto Rico got from the federal administration, from this president.”
More importantly, Velázquez requested for an investigation “similar to what we had in 9/11 to examine the death toll, the federal response and how federal agencies such as FEMA may have responded sluggishly based on artificially low numbers.”
Though the New York Democrat was determined to introduce a legislation that would lead to the formation of an independent commission, it will definitely be a challenge to get it ratified in the Republican-controlled Congress.
Velázquez, who was the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the House, also had a piece of advice for the POTUS ahead of his visit to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in D.C.
“When you are visiting FEMA today to mark the beginning of hurricane season, let’s be clear: This is not the time for self-congratulations and victory laps,” she said.
But when has Trump ever let go of an opportunity to pat himself on the back for his administration’s achievements that only exists in his mind?
“Our entire government leapt into action to coordinate the response along with state and local leaders,” said the president during his visit to FEMA.
Although he was briefed about the Harvard’s new estimate, which stood in sharp contrast to the government's official 64-person death toll, the president remained mum about the whole matter.
Instead, the commander-in-chief chose to applaud FEMA and U.S. officials’ efforts, telling them they should be “very proud” for what they did in the wake of last year’s devastating hurricane season.
"We really appreciate the job you've done," Trump told members of his Cabinet. "I want to thank you very much."
In fact, it’s not just the president – the entire administration seems delusional about how they have handled the hurricane-ravaged island.
“The federal response, once again, was at a historic proportion,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders during a press conference.
Moreover, during the Democratic lawmakers’ news conference, Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) highlighted how crucial it was to get the accurate figures so the disaster’s full scope could be measured.
“In order for legislators to propose any legislation, we need numbers — and the numbers we got were wrong,” said Serrano, referring to hurricane-related deaths. “Numbers do have consequences.”
Members of Power4Puerto Rico, a coalition that advocates for the island's recovery, were also part of the event and just like lawmakers, they focused on the need of transparency so that effective emergency programs could be put in place.
“It’s not time to privatize the Institute of Statistics — at a time when we still don’t how many people died. And still, lives continue to be at risk,” explained member Federico De Jesús, referring to the agency that works in isolation with the government to ensure accurate data collection.
The news conference came shortly after a judge, Lauracelis Roques Arroyo, ruled "the death certificates and the additional information requested by the plaintiffs are of public nature" and should be released.
This decision rejoiced Puerto Rican journalists from the Center of Investigative Journalism and CNN, who had filed a lawsuit against Puerto Rico’s government over holding back death count data.
The first court victory for groups searching for the true death count in Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria took place on Tuesday when a judge ruled in favor of @cpipr and @CNN who sued the island’s government over the release of death certificates. pic.twitter.com/BUWInIS4fq— Nicole Acevedo (@Nicolemarie_A) June 6, 2018
"The state does not have a compelling interest to justify denying access to them,” the judge ruled.
The current administration may choose to stay silent on the island’s plight, but the recent events suggest Democratic lawmakers and residents are now determined to get answers about numerous high-level missteps which aggravated an already devastating situation.
Just this week, residents of the island set up a memorial outside its Capitol building in San Juan by displaying hundreds of shoes as a somber memorial to Puerto Rico's dead.
“American people deserve the facts about what happened to their fellow citizens. I expect that once all the information is brought to light, we will find our government’s inadequate response to Maria constitutes a stain on the moral conscience of our nation,” said Velazquez.
Banner / Thumbnail : REUTERS/Alvin Baez