FEMA approved just 3% of applications for funeral assistance from more than 2,000 Puerto Rican families who lost loved ones after Hurricane Maria, according to a letter the agency head wrote to Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
In response to an earlier letter from Warren, Brock Long, director of FEMA, wrote on Aug. 14 that as of July 30, his agency had received 2,431 requests for funeral assistance from Puerto Ricans related to the hurricane — they approved just 75 of them, meaning 97% have either been rejected or have not received a decision almost a year after Maria hit the island.
FEMA's funeral assistance is intended to help people who have lost loved ones in disaster situations pay for funeral costs, including caskets, mortuary services, burial plots, and cremations.
Although Long did not give a specific reason in his letter for the rejections, he pointed to FEMA’s requirements for funeral assistance. To qualify, Puerto Ricans had to provide a death certificate or letter from a government official "that clearly indicates the death was attributed to the emergency or disaster, either directly or indirectly,” Long wrote in the letter obtained by BuzzFeed News, which he wrote on behalf of FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services.
But getting that information was impossible for many families because, as the Puerto Rican government recently admitted, officials were not counting hurricane-related deaths correctly.
Two weeks ago Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló admitted that authorities vastly undercounted how many people were dying because of the hurricane, partly because they failed to provide clear instructions to doctors and funeral homes on how death certificates should be filled out.
He updated the official death count from 64 to an estimated 2,975 people, after months of insistence in the immediate aftermath of the storm that there were no errors.
FEMA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether they plan to reconsider applications for funeral assistance in light of the updated death toll. HHS also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Even now, families whose loved ones died because of the hurricane but weren’t initially counted still won’t have updated death certificates or letters from the government to send to FEMA, because the updated death toll is just an estimate. Researchers at George Washington University, tasked by the Puerto Rican governor to reassess the death toll, did not individually examine each death that occurred during and after the hurricane. Individual death certificates and records have not been reviewed or updated.
“It should be a gut punch to all of us that thousands of our fellow U.S. citizens died due to Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. For months, I’ve pushed the Trump Administration about its role in, and acceptance of, an inaccurate fatality count," Warren told BuzzFeed News in a statement. "We need to know how the Administration has updated its disaster planning in response to the new death toll and ensure that grieving Puerto Rican families receive long-awaited federal funeral assistance.”
In the weeks after the hurricane, FEMA did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the inaccuracies in the death count when BuzzFeed News flagged them, including how that could affect people seeking funeral assistance.
Funeral home and crematorium directors told BuzzFeed News soon after the hurricane that they were seeing an increase in people asking for cremations rather than burials for their loved ones, in large part because people were worried about burial costs, and cremations are less expensive, they said.
Long wrote several times in his letter to Democrats last month that FEMA has no responsibility in making sure hurricane-related deaths are being classified correctly. "The determination of cause and manner of death is the sole responsibility of the state or territory's cause-of-death certifier," he wrote.
On Monday, Warren and 21 other Democrats in Congress sent another letter to FEMA, asking whether the agency and HHS accept the updated death toll, how they plan to make sure Puerto Ricans receive the assistance they should have gotten, and pushing back on the agency's position that it is not responsible for the death toll.
“What that response overlooks is that accurately counting disaster-related fatalities is inextricably linked to supporting survivors and establishing resilience and preparedness," the Democrats wrote.
"Given the near-certainty that many Puerto Ricans eligible for funeral assistance have not received it, and given the obvious need for many bodies to be claimed for proper burial or cremation, what is FEMA doing to expedite the funeral assistance process?" they asked in the letter.
Democrats also asked FEMA whether they plan to reassess how they responded to Hurricane Maria, and whether they will change their disaster preparedness plans accordingly. The letter comes as Hurricane Florence barrels toward the Carolinas.
“The Trump administration utterly failed the people of Puerto Rico, and we have to make sure what happened there never happens again. We’re in the midst of a potentially devastating hurricane season, and FEMA needs accurate statistics to deal with upcoming crises," Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who cosigned the letter, told BuzzFeed News. "Puerto Rico needs to keep receiving the funding it needs to fully recover, and we must revisit the process we use to ensure an accurate death toll after natural disasters.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA contracted Kenyon International, a company which specializes in recovering and identifying remains after disasters. The company was contracted by neither FEMA nor Puerto Rican authorities after Hurricane Maria.
The company’s CEO, Robert Jensen, warned in October that families who lost loved ones could lose out on federal assistance because of the lack of clarity and apparent discrepancies in the death toll, as first reported by the Puerto Rican Center for Investigative Journalism and BuzzFeed News.
He said given the lack of updated death certificates, FEMA could issue a guidance saying they will consider applications for deaths that occurred within a set time frame during and after the hurricane, of causes that could be linked to the hurricane. Another alternative, he said, could be for Congress to amend the program to allow people to receive aid without needing the death certificate or letter.
“It’s just one more thing that makes it harder for people. I don’t think it’s about FEMA not wanting to pay but it’s part of the bureaucracy and not understanding the emotional impact this has,” he said. “You spent money for a loved one who died.”
In Monday's letter, Democrats asked FEMA and HHS whether implementing new federal disaster death toll counting standards could lead to more accurate death counts and potentially fewer deaths as disasters unfold.
FEMA and HHS did not respond to BuzzFeed News' request for comment on whether they plan to develop federal guidelines on how to count disaster-related deaths.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment, but speaking to reporters in the Oval Office on Tuesday, President Donald Trump called the federal response to Hurricane Maria “an incredible unsung success.”
“I think Puerto Rico was incredibly successful. Puerto Rico was actually our toughest one of all because it is an island,” he said, responding to a question about what lessons on disaster response his administration could take from last year.