How Many Puerto Rican Lives Did Hurricane Maria Claim?

A few weeks ago, Governor Ricardo Rosselló traveled to Washington, D.C. to testify in Congress and to ask federal authorities for $94.4 billion to rebuild Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. In his testimony before the U.S. House of Representative’s Natural Resources Committee, Rosselló promised the “most transparent” recovery effort in U.S. history. But for all the promises, the Puerto Rican government’s response to Hurricane Maria’s impact has been marred in controversy.

One of the biggest controversies has been the Rosselló administration’s accounting of all the deaths associated with Hurricane Maria. We can trace this debate to the early days of the recovery efforts. In an interview on September 26, 2017, conducted by David Begnaud of CBS News, Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, noted:

“Every moment we spend planning in a meeting or every moment we spend just not getting the help we’re supposed to get, people are starting to die. This is not painting a picture. This is just the reality that we live in, the crude aftermath of a storm, a hurricane, that has left us technically paralyzed.”

On that same day Cruz told MSNBC‘s Rachel Maddow: “We need our hospitals not to become death traps” – a reference to two patients in life support who Cruz knew had died when their hospital had lost electrical power.  And although some questioned her claims, a few days later, the government’s figures did prove her assertions correct.

The controversy on the death toll took another turn during President Donald Trump’s visit to the island on October 3, 2017. Many of Trump’s strongest critics hoped that Hurricane Maria’s destruction would sink his presidency just as the Bush administration’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina had ruined George W. Bush’s standing with the American people. In an effort to show that his administration’s reaction to the disaster was adequate, Trump argued that Puerto Rico had not experienced a “real catastrophe” like New Orleans faced after Hurricane Katrina. In a meeting covered by the press, Trump stated:

“We’ve saved a lot of lives. If you look at the — every death is a horror. But if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous — hundred and hundred and hundreds of people that [sic] died. And you look at what happened here with really a storm that was totally overpowering. Nobody’s ever seen anything like this. And what is your death count at this point, 17?”

Governor Rosselló interjected that 16 people were certified as dead. And Trump, in a reference to the 1,833 lives claimed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, congratulated Rosselló, federal officials, U.S. troops and other Puerto Rican leaders for preventing a Katrina-like catastrophe.

Needless to say reactions to President Trump’s comments were varied, but mostly negative. But the debate over the Rosselló administration’s accounting of hurricane-related deaths intensified a few hours after Trump left the island when Rosselló divulged that death toll had increased to 34.

Since Trump’s visit, many Puerto Rican journalists and U.S.-based reporters have questioned the Puerto Rican government’s official count of the deaths associated with Hurricane Maria. The San Juan Mayor, who also is vice president of the island’s opposition party – Partido Popular Democratico (PPD) – and who many expect will challenge Rosselló in the 2020 gubernatorial elections, has relentlessly challenged the figures, demanding more transparency in how the Rosselló administration is accounting for these deaths. In an interview with CNN‘s Jake Tapper on November 3, Cruz did not only claim that the death toll was higher, but she also added that many of these fatlities were probably “related to the lack of electricity.”

Cruz’s criticisms followed the news that the Rosselló administration approved the cremation of 911 bodies. Nidhi Prakash of Buzzfeed News noted that the authorities’ approvals were granted without analyzing whether or not these deaths were associated with the hurricane. Prakash’s interviews with funeral home owners and crematorium directors in the western  side of the island indicated that many of these deaths should be added to the government’s official death tally.

Even though Cruz’s comments echoed all these news stories, Rosselló’s supporters painted her comments as irresponsible. But a report conducted by Puerto Rico’s Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI), published on November 16, 2017, proved correct many of Cruz’s claims. It also added that the government’s methodology was not in line with best practices, while documenting at least 47 deaths that should be added to the official tally. Reacting to this CPI’s reporting, Governor Rosselló expressed confidence on his government’s figures and on his Secretary of Public Safety, Héctor Pesquera, who is responsible for these accounting efforts.

On November 20, 2017, CNN‘s John D. Sutter, Leyla Santiago and Khushbu Shah published a comprehensive investigation that interviewed the owners of 112 funeral homes in Puerto Rico. Based on these interviews, they argued that the death toll between September 20 and October 19, 2017 should stand at more than 500. At the time, the certified figures stood at 55. In comparison to Rosselló’s reaction to the CPI’s report, the governor did not dismiss the findings of the CNN story and he asked Pesquera to investigate CNN‘s claims.

On November 21, 2017, Alexis Santos of Penn State University and Jeffrey T. Howard, and independent researcher, concluded in a working paper that death toll should be much higher. Using unofficial death statisitics provided by the Puerto Rican Department of Public Safety to the CPI and comparing these figures to official death statistics for 2010 through 2016, they estimate that the death counts for September and October 2017 is higher by an estimated 500 “excess deaths” for each month.

Will we ever find out how many Puerto Ricans died as direct or indirect reaction to Hurricane Maria? Why should we care about this issue? There are at least five reasons.

First, the controversy reveals the ugliest side of our politics. In times of crisis, our elected leaders’ first reaction is to protect or to enhance their political standings. This criticisms does not only apply to President Trump, but also to Governor Rosselló.

Second, an inaccurate accounting of the fatalities minimizes the need for a full fledge investigation to determine if some of these deaths could have been prevented or whether the island’s medical facilities were negligent in terms of providing treatment to their most vulnerable patients.

Third, given current meteorological trends, Hurricane Maria will not be the last category 4+ storm to hit the island. Accounting for all the deaths associated with Hurricane Maria will help the government learn how to best react to these storms in the future.

Fourth, there is a financial aspect to this controversy. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides financial compensation to families who’s loved ones died because of the storm. Failure to include many of these fatalities in the official tally will burden these families’ finances.

Finally, this controversy raises serious questions about the serious lack of empathy expressed by  government officials to the hundreds of people who have lost a friend or a family member to Hurricane Maria.

If the Rosselló administration is interested in transparency he should start by taking seriously allegations that the Puerto Rican government has undercounted the number of fatalities associated with Hurricane Maria. It is not only morally necessary but also politically wise. Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle have questioned the Rosselló administration’s credibility and its ability to lead the island’s recovery efforts. Not only will this affect the Puerto Rican government efforts to secure the necessary resources to rebuild the island’s infrastructure, but it will be an issue that will further weaken Puerto Ricans’ trust on their government and their elected officials.

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Puerto Rico’s Residential Electricity Rates (2000-2017)

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As Puerto Rico’s Autoridad de Energia Electrica (AEE) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers slowly rebuild the island’s electric grid following Hurricanes Irma and Maria, let’s remember that Puerto Rican residents, especially in the last four years, pay one of the highest rates for electricity in the United States. How high is the price of electricity when compared to the rates by Americans in other states? We will explore this question in a few days.

These rates were obtained from the U.S. Energy Information Agency which started to collect information for Puerto Rico in 2014. The other rates were collected by the Puerto Rico Energy Commission.

 

Electricity Generation in Puerto Rico Following Hurricanes Irma and Maria

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On November 17, 2017, Ricardo Ramos stepped down as the executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). Governor Ricardo Rosselló quickly accepted his resignation and noted that controversies connected to Ramos’s decisions post-Maria had become a distraction. Once he appointed an interim replacement, Rosselló reemphasized that the goal is to restore electricity to 95% of PREPA’s customers by Christmas. Is this objective feasible? The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as noted in previous posts, has made it clear that they expect to restore power to most Puerto Ricans by February 2018.

In today’s graph, we chart the percentage of electricity generated by PREPA from September 5, 2017 – the day before Hurricane Irma skirted the island’s northeast coast – to November 17.

The data before September 29, 2017 was collected by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office for Infrastructure Security and Energy Restoration. The rest has been made public in the Puerto Rican’s Government Portal – StatusPR. This is not to say that this portal’s information is accurate. For instance, on November 15 it reported that PREPA’s electricity production was at 50% but the information did not take into account a power outage that reduced production to around 20%, increasing to 37% by that night.

As of today, November 18, PREPA’s electricity generation is still under 50%. It is not clear how many Puerto Ricans actually have electricity at home, as PREPA and the Puerto Rican government claim that they can’t provide an accurate estimate. The U.S. Department of Energy on November 16 noted that 57 out of 78 municipalities “are partially energized or have energized facilities”.

Many Puerto Ricans, especially in the island’s interior, have had no power for over 70 days.

Do Puerto Ricans Pay the Highest Electricity Rates in the United States?

Comparatively speaking, do Puerto Rico’s residents pay the highest electricity rates in the United States (U.S.)? The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) collects data on the price of electricity for residential, commercial and industrial customers for all the U.S. states and, since 2014, for Puerto Rico.  The 2016 and 2017 data is preliminary. Thus, for this analysis we will look at 2015 electricity rates for residential customers.

The average price of electricity for residential customers in 2015 was 12.7 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). The scatterplot below helps us visualize the country’s different rates. Hawaii had the highest prices at 29.3 cents kWh, followed by Alaska and Connecticut.  Puerto Rico, at 20.3 cents per kWh, had the fourth highest price in the nation.

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Even though this plot shows that Hawaii had the nation’s highest residential electricity rates in 2015, looking at this rate is not the best approach to see whether Puerto Ricans pay more for electricity than the residents of the other states. For that reason, we should look at how much of the median household’s income is devoted to electricity.

The U.S. Census estimates that the median household income for the U.S. was $56,516. At $40,593, Mississippi’s median household income was the lowest among the country’s 50 states. Maryland has the highest median household income at $75,847, while Puerto Rico’s median household earned around $18,626.

The median U.S. household devotes around 2.5% of its income to pay for electricity. The table below lists the 10 states which devote the least percentage of median household income towards electricity.

States Where the Median Household Devotes the Least Percentage of Income to Electricity (2015)
STATE % OF MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME DEVOTED TO ELECTRICITY
Utah 1.54%
Colorado 1.57%
Washington 1.64%
District of Columbia 1.73%
Minnesotta 1.75%
California 1.76%
Illinois 1.81%
Wyoming 1.82%
New Jersey 1.83%
Alaska 1.96%

The next table lists the 10 states where residents dedicate the highest percentage of their income to electricity.

States Where the Median Household Devotes the Highest Percentage of Income to Electricity (2015)
STATE % OF MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME DEVOTED TO ELECTRICITY
Louisiana 3.15%
Arkansas 3.15%
West Virginia 3.19%
Florida 3.21%
Tennessee 3.26%
North Carolina 3.43%
South Carolina 3.66%
Alabama 3.82%
Mississippi 4.06%
Puerto Rico 5.19%

What can we learn from this short analysis?

  • While Hawaii has the country’s highest electricity rates, its median household income is $73,486. Thus, the median Hawaiian household dedicates 3% of its income to pay for electricity.
  • The median Puerto Rican household, in contrast, dedicates more than 5% of its income towards electricity. This is more than double the national average, reminding us that:
    • Puerto Ricans are not only devoting the highest percentage of their income towards their electricity bills.
    • The median Puerto Rican household earns only $18,626, which is $37,890 less than the national average or $21,967 less than Mississippi, the U.S. state with the lowest median household income.

What Can We Learn About Puerto Rico’s Electricity Consumption from 2009 to 2017?

Puerto Rico’s economic recession started in 2006. Since then, the Puerto Rican government’s economic activity index has plummeted, its public debt has dramatically increased, and many Puerto Ricans have moved to the U.S. mainland. What impact have these trends had on Puerto Rico’s production and consumption of electricity. Can these measures help us explain the island’s economic crisis?

For this post, I accessed data collected by the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico on the total consumption of electricity by the island’s residential, commercial and industrial sectors. Rather than using monthly totals, I reorganized the dataset into quarters.

Let’s look at the total residential consumption of electricity. On the whole, the residents’ consumption of electricity from the first quarter of 2009 to the last quarter of 2017 has declined slightly. The graph below includes a trendline that allows us to measure the overall decrease in the consumption of electricity.

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Our second graph is similar to the first but it looks at the commercial sector’s consumption of electricity in the same time period. A trendline is also included for the same purposes and it demonstrates a modest reduction in the total amount of electricity consumed.

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The last graph follows the same format, but it is worth pointing out that the industrial sector’s consumption of electricity has decreased by a significant amount. And it is this graph that really explains Puerto Rico’s economic predicament.

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What conclusions can we draw from these graphs? These trends suggest that the economic recession has impacted the industrial sector at a higher rate than the residential or commercial sectors. The fact that industries in Puerto Rico are consuming less electricity suggests that many may have relocated to new jurisdictions, gone out of business, or lower their output. In addition, lower levels of electricity consumption in the industrial sector may explain lower levels of electricity consumption in the residential and commercial sectors too. Indeed, a weaker industrial sector may have led to higher unemployment rates, lower demand for commercial services, and to higher emigration rates among middle class Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland.