The legislation proposes an independent and bipartisan commission to pass judgment on the federal response to the catastrophe that occurred in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. (horizontal-x3)
The legislation proposes an independent and bipartisan commission to pass judgment on the federal response to the catastrophe that occurred in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. (André Kang)

Washington - If Republicans want to challenge Donald Trump's theory that he deserves 10 out of 10 score for his response to the emergency caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, since yesterday, they have a Democrat bill in Congress seeking an independent investigation about his government´s performance.

The bill proposes an independent and bipartisan commission – similar to the one created after 9/11- to investigate the federal response to the catastrophe occurred in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, including how adequate processes and methodology are to calculate deaths related to a natural disaster.

The bill was introduced by Puerto Rican Nydia Velázquez (New York) and Bennie Thompson (Mississippi), minority spokesperson in the Homeland Security Committee, and in the Senate by Elizabeth Warren (Massachusets), and Kirsten Gillibrand (NY).

Along with the slow and inefficient mobilization of the federal government, Democrats want to examine contingency plans prior to 2017 hurricane season, the vulnerability of the Puerto Rican economy, the implications of the island's dependence on imported fuel for power generation, the conditions of its telecommunications system and the capacity of US and Puerto Rico´s governments to swiftly respond to emergencies.

The commission should investigate disparities in the federal government response to Puerto Rico compared to other disasters in the US.

"My legislation would look at how the Trump administration's feeble response to Hurricane Maria 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," said Congresswoman Velázquez.

The uncertainty and underestimation that the Puerto Rican government made on the death toll has generated multiple research requests by Democrats, especially after a Harvard University study warned that fatalities can be between 793 and 8,498. 

Data from Puerto Rico Demographic Registry - released after strong public pressure - indicates that there were 1,397 more deaths between September and December 2017 than in the last quarter of 2016.

While awaiting for a George Washington University study, the Puerto Rican government maintains in 64 the official death toll, although they accept many more. "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 Sen. Warren, Democrat potential presidential candidate.

The eight-member Commission would be appointed by Congress to ensure that there would be four Republicans and four Democrats.

The commission - which would be called  ‘‘National Commission of the Federal Response to Natural Disasters inPuerto Rico” - would be ordered to hold at least 10 hearings on the Island and submit its report 12 months after the date of the enactment of the Act.

Just five months before mid-term elections, the White House warned that the death toll after a natural disaster is a matter addressed by local governments.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio (Florida) said he hopes to evaluate the findings of "several organizations that analyze the death toll based on new information published after last week's court order".

"The humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria is terrible. We must learn from what happened so it never happens again. That's why I asked relevant government agencies to provide information on efforts done to improve recovery after a hurricane and response efforts. I also asked that they update us on their plan to protect the elderly and disabled in this hurricane season," added Rubio.

Meanwhile, Senator Gillibrand said she will do everything possible for the bill to become law.

"It is necessary to investigate what happened. Although it is unlikely to be approved under a Republican majority, the bill lays the groundwork for a future action under a Democratic Congress," said Enrique Fernandez Toledo, director of the Puerto Rico Relief and Economic Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

The US Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs approved on Wednesday an amendment by Democratic Senator Kamala Harris (California) that would order FEMA to establish federal procedures that will allow to have  reliable death tolls from natural disasters. 

Harris' proposal would grant FEMA $ 2 million to finance a contract with the National Academy of Medicine to conduct the study. The contract must be agreed 90 days after the bill becomes law. The study must be completed in two years.


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