WASHINGTON — Some congressional lawmakers are calling on the Census Bureau to allow residents displaced by Hurricane Maria to be counted in their communities in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands instead of where they're living temporarily.
“We’re going to lose population and when funding comes up we’re going to be at more of a disadvantage than we already are,” said Stacey Plaskett, a Democrat who represents the U.S. Virgin Islands in Congress.
With some communities in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands still reeling from last year’s Hurricanes Maria and Irma, lawmakers argue many residents may not be able to return for years.
Plaskett and other lawmakers say those communities stand to lose millions in federal funds based on the nation’s decennial population count, which begins in April 2020.
Hurricane Maria, which struck last September, devastated the islands and forced some residents to temporarily move to the mainland and other places. Some communities in Puerto Rico still don't have power. A recent Harvard study put the death toll in Puerto Rico at more than 4,600. Federal officials had reported 64 deaths.
Census officials faced similar concerns for the 2010 count after Hurricane Katrina destroyed communities in the Gulf Coast in 2005.
Civil rights leaders and some lawmakers from the Gulf Coast had urged Census officials to develop a plan to accurately count the displaced residents. Thousands had scattered across the country to places as far away as New York.
The residents were counted where they were living when the count was underway — whether it was temporary or not.
Terri Ann Lowenthal, a Census expert, said anytime there’s a significant natural disaster that devastates a community's housing stock it creates a challenge for the Census Bureau.
She noted that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast five years before the 2010 count. Some communities had still not recovered. Hurricanes Maria and Irma struck three years ahead of the count.
“Clearly, there are likely to be lingering difficulties in counting those areas accurately, especially in Puerto Rico because it appears that the recovery is proceeding at a much slower pace,” said Lowenthal, co-author of a 2011 Leadership Conference Education Fund report on the Census count effort in the region after Katrina.
Census officials said they will count displaced residents where they are staying when the count is underway. The bureau has long followed its “usual residence” policy, which it defines “as the place where a person lives and sleeps most of the time.”
For example, victims of natural disasters who are staying in a shelter and don’t have a home at the time will be counted as a resident of the facility there.
Lawmakers and others are concerned the policy could redirect much-needed funds away from communities in the islands, many of which were already struggling.
“The Census is the lifeline of our communities,” said New York Rep. Jose Serrano, the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science.
Serrano and others said many residents have temporarily moved to other places, including the mainland, while their homes, businesses and communities are repaired.
In many cases, said Plaskett, repairs have been extremely slow so she’s concerned many residents will not have returned to the islands by the start of the next count.
Democrats complain the Trump Administration has been slow to respond to recovery needs in the islands.
Plaskett said she's working with other lawmakers to craft legislation that would allow displaced individuals who are temporarily living elsewhere during the count to say their permanent residence is on the islands.
Democratic lawmakers have introduced several measures to reverse Census Bureau decisions, including a controversial move to add a question about citizenship as requested by the Justice Department.
A bill introduced by Serrano and Grace Meng, D-N.Y., would restrict funding for the Census Bureau if the citizenship question remains on the form.
Democrats concede their measures are not likely to pass in the Republican-controlled Congress.
Meanwhile, Lowenthal said there are two more hurricane seasons before the count begins. Hurricane season started Friday.
The Leadership Conference Education Fund had urged Congress to fund a special Census in designated areas several years after Katrina and Rita so residents had more time to return. That didn’t happen.
Lowenthal said Congress should consider that recommendation this time.
“This is another way to address the heart-wrenching consequence of a natural disaster that displaces people before a Census," she said. “It is not always possible to count people who intend to move back home but are not close to doing so when the Census takes place."