WASHINGTON - Yesterday, Democrats and Hispanic groups demanded Congress Republican majority to examine how many people died in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, at a time when the university that is conducting a study on the issue at the request of the Puerto Rican government says it may take more than nine months to investigate it thoroughly.
Yesterday, before sessions resumed in the Senate and the House, Democrats had already demanded that the Republican leadership review the reports indicating that the Puerto Rican government official estimate on storm-related deaths related was very low.
For the minority, the Harvard University study - which estimated that deaths could be between 793 and 8,498, with an average of 4,645 - confirms the complaints they have been making for months about the slow and inefficient response of the federal government to the worst catastrophe in Puerto Rico in the last century. Hurricane Maria hit the island on September 20, 2017.
Last week, the debate on the survey forced the government of Puerto Rico to publish the total number of deaths certified by the Demographic Registry, which between September and December 2017 exceeded by 1,397 the total registered on the last quarter of 2016.
While waiting for the study requested to the Milken Institute School of Public Health - which initial stage should be ready this summer, but in-depth analysis would take many more months - the government of Puerto Rico has not changed its official death toll set at 64 in December.
"Make no mistake – these lives were lost in no small part due to the Trump administration’s gross negligence. The Trump administration’s failure to deliver timely and sufficient aid to United States citizens in Puerto Rico was an utterly careless decision with deadly consequences,” said Democrat Rubén Gallego (Arizona), minority spokesman on the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs.
The subcommittee is the body with direct jurisdiction over the island, within the Committee of Natural Resources presided over by Republican Rob Bishop (Utah).
Gallego made his comments before joining 13 other Democrats on Monday, including the minority spokesman on the committee, Raúl Grijalva (Arizona), and Puerto Ricans Nydia Velázquez (New York) and Darren Soto (Florida), to request a public hearing on the issue before the August recess.
Today, the Hispanic Caucus in Congress will hold a press conference on the matter.
Meanwhile, in an interview on Jon Favreau’s podcast -who was Barack Obama´s Chief Speechwriter-, the Puerto Rican Democratic congressman Luis Gutiérrez (Illinois), recalled how President Donald Trump´s administration accused San Juan mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, of exaggerating the island's emergency with her late September warning about "people are dying" due to the lack of basic services, days after the hurricane.
"They did everything possible to destroy her reputation ... The Harvard study has confirmed that people were dying," Gutierrez said.
Meanwhile, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA) – the US premier Latino organization- affirmed that the recent high estimates of the death toll in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria are a reflection of " blatant disregard for human life" by the “current administration unparalleled in modern time”.
The coalition, which represents 46 Hispanic groups, also considered that the lack of certainty in the information of the government of Puerto Rico has helped Trump´s administration to maintain that its response to the emergency was a success.
" When history looks back at the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria it will judge the president and his officials more harshly than any administration in the history of America’s fraught relationship with Puerto Rico,”
said José Calderón, President, Hispanic Federation, Co-Chair, NHLA Puerto Rico Working Group who added that “officials in Puerto Rico were complicit in helping the president downplay the impact of this tragedy”.
Yesterday, Bishop did not say whether he will hold a hearing on the reports of total deaths caused by Hurricane Maria.
However, Bishop has already on the agenda - probably for July - a session on the performance of the Oversight Board in charge of the island's public finances, two years after the PROMESA Law was passed. Saturday marks two years anniversary of PROMESA which was approved in the House and then, on June 29, 2016 in the Senate and signed into law by former President Obama a day later.
The official storm-related death toll is a matter that the government of Puerto Rico entrusted to the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health last February
According to the University, the first stage of the study will be ready this summer, which will be an estimate between September 20 and February.
The deaths certified by the Demographic Registry can already represent an advance of that possible number.
But the Milken Institute, according to what a spokeswoman said and The New York Times published, would take perhaps nine months to complete "a deeper investigation," which will include interviews with victims´relatives.
The White House reacts
Meanwhile, the White House, defended its response to the emergency on the island. “The federal response once again was at a historic proportion. 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 will continue to do so,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.
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