NIST Wants Help Investigating Deaths Caused by Hurricane Maria

Efrain Diaz Figueroa spends the afternoon sitting on a chair next to the remains of the house of his sister destroyed by Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Monday, Oct. 9, 2017.

Efrain Diaz Figueroa spends the afternoon sitting on a chair next to the remains of the house of his sister destroyed by Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. Ramon Espinosa/AP

The agency is specifically interested in how building failures contributed to the fatalities.

Nearly two years after Hurricane Maria devastated most of Puerto Rico, uprooting many and ravaging much of the island’s infrastructure, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is looking for a contractor to comprehensively analyze and identify deaths that were directly and indirectly connected to the storm. 

The agency is particularly interested in investigating how failures across Puerto Rico’s buildings and building systems attributed to deaths associated with the Category 5 hurricane.

“The information provided by the contractor will be essential in the development of recommendations to improve mortality surveillance and attribution, and ultimately, the safety and structural integrity of buildings in the United States,” agency officials said in a solicitation published Friday.

As the strongest hurricane to hit the island in nearly a century, Maria affected the majority of the island’s population in some capacity, but details around its true impact were not clear in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Though the governor originally and controversially reported that only 64 people died in connection to the hurricane, the government of Puerto Rico revised the official death count to 2,975 in Aug. 2018, making the storm one of the deadliest in American history. 

Last year, NIST’s director stood up a national construction safety team—which investigate building failures—to perform a technical investigation of the storm and its impact on the island. The multiyear study will seek to provide insight on how critical buildings held up during the storm and how emergency communications systems worked, with the ultimate goal of helping communities become more resilient in the face of future disasters.  

Ideally, the agency wants a vendor that has Spanish language fluency, some physical presence on the island, established relations with its institutional structure and “extensive experience” in how death certificates are completed in Puerto Rico. 

“The contractor shall provide services to gather data related to deaths in Puerto Rico, conduct verbal autopsies and/or clinical panels to determine attribution of deaths that occurred immediately after the storm made landfall,” agency officials said.

NIST wants the contractor to develop and provide a variety of deliverables through their investigation, including an integrated database of deaths in Puerto Rico that can be used to calculate cause-specific mortality rates and adjusted around specific themes like age and gender, a verbal autopsy instrument and script that can help determine if a death was a direct result of a building failure, a survey through which investigators can identify and confirm the sort of census of deaths with key informants or others related to those who died, as well as a draft report and presentation of their findings. 

NIST expects all of the work to be conducted at the contractor’s facility or in the impacted areas across Puerto Rico that are being studied. 

Questions regarding the sources sought solicitation should be submitted by Sept. 10 and all responses from interested companies are due by Sept. 18.