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FEMA has approved 3 percent of requests for Puerto Rico funeral aid
The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) says it has approved 75 of the 2,431 overall requests for funeral assistance related to Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico last year.
The agency told Senate Democrats in a letter dated last month and released Tuesday that the vast majority of the claims it had received through the end of July, 97 percent, were rejected or awaited a decision due to the agency's requirement that documentation be provided showing that a death was storm-related.
FEMA did not say how many of the 2,431 requests were deemed eligible for funeral assistance.
"It is relatively common for applicants to identify a disaster need as 'funeral' when, after contacted personally by a FEMA employee; the request for a funeral was in error. Until FEMA contacts all applicants, an accurate number of total applicants eligible for funeral assistance is not available," FEMA Administrator Brock Long wrote to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Critics note that Puerto Rico's own government only recently updated its official death count for the storm from 64 to 2,975. The government updated the figure after receiving the results of an independent study.
Long told Warren last month in the letter that the agency bears no responsibility for determining death counts related to disasters.
"The determination of cause and manner of death is the sole responsibility of the state or territory's cause-of-death certifier," he said.
In a response this week, Warren and other Democrats argued that the agency is purposely overlooking Puerto Rico's failure to provide an accurate and timely death count.
"What that response overlooks is that accurately counting disaster-related fatalities is inextricably linked to supporting survivors and establishing resilience and preparedness," they wrote.
President Trump and other administration officials have largely touted the federal response to hurricane damage on the island last year.
"I think probably the hardest one we had by far was Puerto Rico because of the island nature, and I actually think it was one of the best jobs that's ever been done with respect to what this is all about," Trump said Tuesday, discussing preparations for Hurricane Florence, which is expected to hit the East Coast later this week.