The Puerto Rico Data Lab

How Many Puerto Rican Lives Did Hurricane Maria Claim?

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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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