“Hell to Pay”: One of Governor Ricardo Rossello’s Favorite Phrases

On May 31, 2018, Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced, with much fanfare, to his 500,000+ Facebook followers:

“In few minutes watch my interview with Anderson Cooper CNN talking about Puerto Rico recovery efforts.”

It is interesting that his post mentioned that he was invited to talk about “recovery efforts” rather than the Harvard University-funded study – “Mortality in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria” – which was undoubtedly the main news story regarding Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts in both Puerto Rico and in the United States.

Cooper asked Rosselló about the Harvard-funded study and why his government failed to share its mortality data with the study’s authors. Although Rosselló said he welcomed the study and noted that he had commissioned George Washington University to study the matter, Rosselló said he was surprised to hear that officials in his government had refused to share its data with the researchers.

Unconvinced by Rosselló’s remarks, Cooper asked him again why his government fail to grant the authors’ request and the governor promised to further investigate the issue, noting that “there will be hell to pay” if he finds out that government officials decided not to cooperate with researchers.

An hour after the interview, CNN shared a video of the interview, using the following headline: “Rossello: Hell to Pay if Data Not Available”. In Twitter, the “Hell to Pay” phrase has been widely used to describe the governor’s interview with Cooper.

I have been researching Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts for a long time and I have listened to countless of hours of Governor Rosselló’s answers to questions from reporters, lawmakers in Capitol Hill or Trump administration officials. And this phrase – “hell to pay” – is one that Rosselló has used in the past, anytime journalists question his or his government’s credibility or ability to manage a crisis. Every time he has used the phrase, it has been followed by a promise to hold wrongdoers accountable for their actions.

The following table provides a short summary of Rosselló’s use of the phrase since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but representative of a pattern in Governor Rosselló’s behavior. Links to each story are provided too.

Date Source Headline Context
10/9/2017 Reuters Hell to pay’ over water, food deliveries, Puerto Rico governor warns Questions regarding the Puerto Rican government’s and federal authorities’ mishandling of the distribution of water and other supplies to hurricane victims.
10/12/2017 PBS News Hour White House is committed to long-term Puerto Rico recovery despite Trump tweets, says Gov. Rosselló Allegations that local Puerto Rican officials are not distributing supplies to hurricane victims.
10/19/2017 CSPAN President Trump Meeting with Governor of Puerto Rico In question and answer session with press, President Trump and Governor Rossello are asked about allegations that supplies have been hoarded by local Puerto Rican officials and not distributed to hurricane victims.
10/27/2018 ABC News PR Governor Threatens “Hell to Pay” As Probes of Whitefish Contract Begin A reaction to questions regarding PREPA’s award of the Whitefish Energy contract to restore Puerto Rico’s power grid after Hurricane Maria.

Why does this matter? Democracy works when the government and its leaders are transparent and accountable. Puerto Ricans know that their government and elected leaders are not perfect. What they want are responsive institutions and leaders, who are working on behalf of the public good and are willing to put society’s collective needs over their own wants.

To this day, it is not clear whether some local officials failed to distribute supplies to hurricane victims. Although Ricardo Ramos, resigned as the CEO of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority,  we are still waiting for the governor to commission an investigation into the Whitefish Energy contract. The pattern continues now with the government’s accounting (or lack thereof) of the increased mortality rate after Hurricane Maria.

As noted above, Rosselló told Cooper that he was “shocked” to learn that his government denied access to its mortality data to the Harvard-funded research team. And there are two problems with this statement. First, although he has publicly stated that he welcomes the Harvard-funded study, he has not read it. After all, the study notes:

Although the government of Puerto Rico stopped sharing mortality data with the public in December 2017 (our request for these data was also denied), in April 2018 the Institute of Statistics of Puerto Rico, an autonomous government entity, adopted a resolution to improve the counting of disaster-related deaths and publish all mortality data online without further delay.

This is troubling. If Rosselló did not take the time to read the study everybody has been talking about in Puerto Rico and in Washington, D.C. for the last days, how committed is he to making sure that this problem is not repeated in the future?

Second, and probably more worrying, Rosselló is either lying or lives in a bubble, where his advisors are trying to shield him from reality. As NPR’s Adrian Florido recently tweeted:

Gov. told CNN that “there will be hell to pay” if he finds that his govt. has refused to release mortality data.  [Centro de Periodismo Investigativo] sued them for the data. I was in a courtroom last week in which his govt’s lawyers were defending withholding it. How does he not know that?

This is not the first time that Governor Rosselló or his political allies have stretched the truth to protect their own interests.

Will things change thanks to the Harvard-funded report or Andersen Cooper’s tough questions? Unfortunately, I think I know the answer to this question.





Thoughts on the Harvard University-Funded Study: “Mortality in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria”

How many Puerto Ricans died due to Hurricane Maria? This has been one of the most contested issues since the hurricane made landfall on September 20, 2017. In an earlier post, published in November 25, 2017, I explained the roots of this controversy. The post describes the work of Puerto Rico’s Centro de Periodismo Investigativo which’s investigative reports have demonstrated problems with the Rosselló administration’s accounting of hurricane-related deaths, President Donald Trump’s visit to the island, which sparked this controversy, and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto’s views on the matter, which have been widely covered by the media.

In this post, I want to share some thoughts on the Harvard University-funded study, “Mortality in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria” which was conducted by Nishant Kishore, Domingo Marques, Ayesha Mahmud, Mathew Kiang, Imary Rodriguez, Arlan Fuller, Peggy Ebner, Cecilia Sorensen, Fabio Racy, Jay Lernery, Leslie Maas, Jennifer Leaning, Rafael Irizarry, Satchit Balsari and Caroline Buckee, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine on May 29, 2018.

But before looking at the study, it is worth recapping some of the developments that have taken place since I published my last post on this issue.

More Twists and Turns

Since my last post on hurricane-related deaths, a few things have taken place that have further politicized this sensitive issue. For example, the New York Times published the findings of its study, which estimated that the death toll could be as high as 1,052 people. Latino USA and the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo partnered to review the available demographic data, arguing that the number was closer to 985.

Intense public pressure forced the Rosselló administration to establish a commission to further study the controversy. But rather than appointing an independent panel, the governor asked Héctor Pesquera, the Secretary of Public Safety, to lead the commission. This was problematic in at least two ways. First, one of Pesequera’s responsibilities was to account for the number of hurricane-related deaths. Second, his repeated dismissal of journalists’ questions regarding the government’s figures created a public relations crisis, which tarnished the Rosselló administration’s credibility in both Puerto Rico and in the U.S. mainland.

For most of January, journalists working for the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo asked the Rosselló administration to share its data on hurricane-related deaths with the public. The New York Times, CNN, Buzzfeed and other news outlets asked for the same information. But Pesquera’s unwillingness to share these data forced the Centro de Periodismo Investigative and CNN to sue the Government of Puerto Rico in the local court system on February 7, 2017.

The next day Governor Rosselló admitted that there were flaws in his administration’s handling of the controversy. For that reason, the Government of Puerto Rico commissioned George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health to conduct a study that could “estimate the excess mortality tied to Hurricane Maria”. According to the Caribbean Business News, the Government of Puerto Rico agreed to pay $305,368 to finance the analysis. In exchange, the research team, led by Carlos Santos-Burgoa, agreed to share its preliminary findings by May 22, 2018 and a submit full report to the Rosselló administration  before July 23, 2018. Due to unforeseen circumstances Santos-Burgoa’s team failed to deliver its preliminary report. After asking the Puerto Rican government officials for an extension, George Washington University’s public relations office announced that its team hopes to submit its findings by the end of the summer.

As noted above, on May 29, 2018 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study estimating that Hurricane Maria claimed the lives of around 4,645 Puerto Ricans. The official government death toll stands at 64. How can we explain this discrepancy, especially given the fact that other studies’ estimates, including Alexis Santos and Jeffrey Howard’s analysis, are much lower?

From 64 to 4,645

The Harvard-funded study did not have access to the Government of Puerto Rico’s records. Indeed, the New York Times reported that the Rosselló administration “refused to provide data to them.”

To estimate the number of death associated with Hurricane Maria, the authors of the study surveyed “a representative stratified random sample 3,299 households, of an estimated 1,135,507 total households, across Puerto Rico.” The authors decided to stratify the population “according to remoteness, defined according to the travel time to nearest city with a population of at least 50,000 persons.” According to the study, 93% of respondents agreed to complete the survey.

The Harvard-funded study estimates that Hurricane Maria claimed the lives of 4,645 individuals. Although this figure is larger than the estimates of past studies cited above, it is important to remember that the analysis covers a longer time period (September 20 – December 31, 2017). And while the 4,645 number has garnered lots of attention it is also critical to keep in mind that the authors are not saying that the hurricane caused this amount of deaths. Because of the survey’s margin of error, the authors estimate that deaths connected to Hurricane Maria could be as low as 793 and as high as 8,498. Thus, the 4,645 is the median between these two estimates.

One of the main benefits of this study is that it helps us understand the main causes of these deaths. For example, the survey asked respondents to estimate the days they lived without clean water, electricity or cell phone coverage. Thus, the authors can show how these variables may have affected mortality rates in the island after Hurricane Maria. Unsurprisingly, the respondents to the survey cite that “interruption of medical care was the primary case of sustained high mortality rates in the months after the hurricane.”  Only 10% of the reported deaths seemed to have been caused directly by Hurricane Maria. These findings corroborate other investigative reports’ conclusions.

While survey research has its weaknesses, my first reading of this study suggest that the authors’ did a good job. The methodology is sound and the fact that the authors’ have publicly shared their data demonstrates their willingness to engage critiques and to let other social scientists use their observations to explore the impact Hurricane Maria had on Puerto Ricans’ lives.

My biggest question is whether the Harvard-funded study took into consideration the spike in the numbers of suicides that have taken place in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. While the researchers’ survey does include suicide as a cause of death, their paper does not address this issue, which has received considerable attention in the last months.

The Study’s Fall Out

To figure out how many people died because of Hurricane Maria, it seems that we will have to wait for the findings of Santos-Burgoa’s team. Given that this group of researchers have complete access to the government’s data, they should be able produce a more precise accounting of the excess deaths following Hurricane Maria. But the fact that the Rosselló administration  has spent over $300,000 on this study and that this team is the only one that has access to the government’s data will raise questions regarding these researchers’ independence and the legitimacy of their findings.

And here lies the dilemma Puerto Rican society faces today. This controversy has further eroded Puerto Ricans’ trust on their government’s capacity to address natural disasters and their elected leaders’ willingness to do the right thing. And while the Harvard-funded program did not consider the Trump administration’s role in this controversy, it is safe to say that many Puerto Ricans’ faith in the federal government has waned as well.

While the Harvard-funded study could have prompted a much needed conversation of what future actions the Puerto Rican government can take to prevent future hurricane-related deaths, it has had the opposite effect. The study has mobilized the island’s political factions and reduced the possibility of a sensible discussion of both the merits and limitations of this study. For example, in Twitter, supporters of Governor Rosselló have dismissed the study’s conclusions. Some have even questioned the independence of the study, arguing that Domingo Marques, one of the authors who teaches in Puerto Rico’s Carlos Albizu University, is a “communist” and an ally of Mayor Cruz.  For her part, Cruz, who has challenged the Rosselló administration’s figures since early October 2017 and is thinking of mounting a run for governor in 2020, has been photographed wearing a baseball cap that reads 4,645. In different interviews, she has  promised to honor the memories of those that died because of the government’s negligence. And while Governor Rosselló has refused to meet with journalists, including CBS News’ David Begnaud, Pesquera has questioned the findings of the Harvard-funded study, claiming that its methodology is unscientific.

What seems lost in this controversy is the experiences of those Puerto Ricans who lost a friend or a family member due to Hurricane Maria. It must be difficult to find closure in this political environment.

And what is even sadder is that this political controversy is overshadowing the fact that many of these deaths could have been prevented. It is important that the Government of Puerto Rico and the U.S. federal government can learn from their mistakes and also hold accountable those officials or healthcare professionals who were negligent and may have not done enough to save these people. This is not only necessary from a policy standpoint. It is a moral imperative.






The End of Semester = More Time to Write…

It has been a while since I wrote a post. Trying to balance writing with my teaching and administrative duties is always difficult and it becomes even more trying at the end of the semester.

For the last weeks, I have been reflecting on Puerto Rico’s political and economic future after Maria. Many of my thoughts have been shaped to my reactions to a few recent pieces in the NY Times and Politico, a Frontline documentary, Congressional hearings, and few media interviews with Governor Rosselló.

So the P.R. Data Lab will continue for a few more months. My goal is not to only share my opinions about Puerto Rico post Maria, but to also share some of research findings. As I noted in earlier posts, I am writing a piece on the politics of electricity restoration in the island, which I will be presenting at the Puerto Rican Studies Association conference in November 2018.

I expect to share two posts later this week and I hope to continue sharing two posts per week for the rest of the summer.

Reflections on the “March for Our Lives”: Data on Gun Violence in Puerto Rico and the United States

This weekend’s “March for our Lives” or la “Marcha Por Nuestras Vidas” got me thinking about gun violence not only in Puerto Rico and the United States (U.S.), but all over the world. So, I downloaded the most recent Small Arms Survey (SAS) dataset. The most recent figures are for 2016.

The SAS collects data on all violent deaths and subsets these observations along the following clusters: (1) count of intentional homicides; (2) deaths connected to ongoing conflicts (i.e. wars or civil wars); (3) the count of non-conflict, violent deaths caused by firearms; and (4) the count of lethal violence against women.

For this post, I am interested in the rate of violent deaths per 100,000 individuals caused by firearms. Thus, my analysis does not take into considerations states that have ongoing civil wars.

Here are three interesting charts. First which region of the world has the most gun-related violent deaths?

chart (24)While I am not surprised that the Americas is the deadliest region of the world, I am surprised by the fact that 78% of all firearms-related deaths have been committed in this part of the world.

Which are the most violent subregions in the Americas?

chart (23)

The rate of violent deaths per 100,000 caused by firearms in the United States for 2016 is 3.1 or a total of 10,417 violent deaths. In contrast, Puerto Rico’s rate stands at 15, which 550 violent deaths. Puerto Rico’s numbers are quite high. In 2016, it ranked as the 15th jurisdiction with the highest firearms-related death in the world.


chart (22)

While these figures are not very encouraging, it is important to note that the numbers of all violent deaths (i.e. caused by firearms or other instruments) in Puerto Rico has declined over the past 5 years.

chart (25)

The question is whether these trends will be reversed. After all, the number of reported violent deaths has increased in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

Although these are pretty depressing statistics, I hope that public awareness will help politicians and law enforcement personnel in the United States and Puerto Rico enact new laws and policies to curb gun violence. Was the “March on Our Lives” a new chapter in this struggle? Only time will tell…

Do Crowds Know Best? Some Reflections on CBS Correspondent David Begnaud’s Experiment in Crowdsourcing Journalism on Puerto Rico #6MonthsAfterMaria

One area of research that has fascinated me for the longest time is whether or not crowds’ responses to a particular question are correct. This is an issue that has been widely debated in academic circles. And the literature on this subject is far from conclusive.

While experiments in crowdsourcing are not always successful, thanks to the growing influence of social media, journalists have used these experiments to great effect. In 2015, Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism released its Guide to Crowdsourcing, highlighting different reasons why so many news organizations have adopted these techniques. One of the report’s main takeaways is that when done right crowdsourcing empowers “people to share what they know individually so that journalists can communicate the collective information” (p. 14).

Journalists who are willing to use these techniques recognize the limits of their own knowledge. Thus their “call-outs” are designed to help them get a deeper-understanding of their news stories and hence improve the quality of their reporting. Crowdsourcing journalism changes the dynamics between the journalist and readers, giving readers an opportunity to shape how media organizations cover a particular event.

A good example of crowdsourcing journalism is CBS News Correspondent David Begnaud’s March 16, 2018 “call-out” to his social media followers for suggestions on issues to cover and places to visit in Puerto Rico six months after Hurricane Maria. His reports echoed his followers’ suggestions, as he noted in a video he recorded at the end of his trip to the island. For more information on Begnaud’s methods, read my earlier post.

Begnaud’s crowdsourcing experiment gives us an opportunity to test how knowledgeable the respondents are about Puerto Rico’s challenges post-Maria.

As I noted in an earlier post, using Pablo Barbera’s rFacebook package for R, I downloaded 2,658 responses to Begnaud’s “call-out” for information in Facebook. I utilized Julia Silge’s and David Robinson’s Tidytext package to tokenize the responses, to remove stopwords (i.e. prepositions) and to put together a corpus we can analyze. Begnaud’s followers encouraged him to visit Yabucoa, Humacao, Utuado and other towns in the southeast as well as in the mountains.

Any person following Puerto Rico’s post-Maria recovery knows that one of the top news stories is the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) troubles repairing the island’s electric grid. The lack of electricity serves as a good proxy to the many problems that have affected Puerto Ricans since September 20, 2017: lack of access to reliable healthcare, traffic lights not working, troubles with the distribution of potable water, access to banking services and so forth. And Begnaud’s followers identified electricity as the top issue of concern.

My corpus included over 30,000 words and his followers’ references to electricity represent 4% of this total – a really high number! The main words associated with the electric’s grid repair are included in the following pie chart.

chart (12)

How much do Begnaud’s followers know about Puerto Rico’s challenges  post-Maria? As noted above, any person who has paid attention to the island’s struggles would have encouraged Begnaud to cover how the lack of electricity has affected Puerto Ricans’ lives. Thus, this piece of “collective information” by itself is not too interesting. But combining these data points with the towns Begnaud followers’ encouraged him to visit demonstrates that most of his followers do have a deep understanding of the island’s post-Maria struggles.

As detailed in the next table, PREPA groups the island’s 78 municipalities into seven administrative regions. The figure in the last column aggregates the municipalities mentioned by Begnaud’s followers. For example, PREPA’s San Juan Region aggregates all the times San Juan, Guaynabo, or Trujillo Alto were mentioned in the responses, which was 107 times.

PREPA Region Number of Meters Percent of Meters Number of Municipalities Per Region Sum of Municipalities Mentioned By Begnaud’s Followers By Region
Arecibo 153,407 10.4% 12 519
Bayamón 226,041 15.4% 8 127
Caguas 214,396 14.6% 17 1,288
Carolina 133,861 9.1% 9 226
Mayagüez 229,290 15.6% 15 200
Ponce 207,784 14.1% 14 207
San Juan 308,227 20.9% 3 107
TOTAL 1,473,007 100% 78 2,674

For the last two months, the USACE has been publishing the percentage of meters connected to the electric grid in each of PREPA’s regions. The biggest challenge has been reconnecting the meters in the Caguas Region followed by the Arecibo Region, as demonstrated in the graph below.

chart (14)

If we only look at the municipalities that were mentioned 20 times or more, then we can appreciate how informed Begnaud’s followers are. Note that those who responded to his “call-out” mentioned 15 out of the 17 municipalities located in the PREPA’s Caguas Region.

PREPA Region Number of Municipalities Per Region Number of Municipalities with 20 Mentions or More
Percentage of Top Municipalities Mentioned
Arecibo 12 7 58%
Bayamón 8 3 38%
Caguas 17 15 88%
Carolina 9 2 22%
Mayagüez 15 4 27%
Ponce 14 4 29%
San Juan 3 1 33%
TOTAL 78 36 46%

What can we learn from this analysis? First, it was a very good idea for Begnaud to crowdsource information from his Facebook and Twitter followers regarding his trip to Puerto Rico.

Second, Begnaud’s experiment in crowdsourcing was successful because his reporting has been closely followed by Puerto Ricans both in the island and in the mainland. As I noted in two earlier posts (here and here), Begnaud’s social media audience started to rapidly grow when he was in Puerto Rico reporting on the humanitarian catastrophe that ensued after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Thus, many of the followers that responded to his “call-out” probably had some type of personal connection to the island and its people.

This second point is important because crowdsourcing works best when a majority of the people who responded to his “call-out” have some prior knowledge of the issues being considered. Thus, this particular analysis does not answer whether or not crowds are always right. But it does demonstrate that a majority of the followers who responded to Begnaud’s call for information knew quite a bit about Puerto Rico’s and its challenges following Hurricane Maria.