The Government Failed The 5,740 Puerto Ricans Who Died After Hurricane Maria

Photo: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images.
The push notification lighting up my phone felt like a slap: “Nearly 6,000 people died in Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria, a new study says. The government death toll is still 64.”
I ran to the bathroom and threw up.
For months, boricuas like me have insisted that, based on the reporting of the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo in Puerto Rico and several major news outlets, more people than officially reported have died as a consequence of the Category 4 storm that ravaged the island in September. Now, we have proof: A Harvard-led study in the New England Journal of Medicine said the post-hurricane estimate of deaths found an excess of 5,740 between September 20 and December 31, 2017.
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The worst part? Most of these deaths were preventable. To say that the blood of most of them is on the hands of the Rosselló and Trump administrations is far from an exaggeration.
The study’s death toll is 70 times higher than the Puerto Rican government's official count. According to researchers, the interruption of medical care — many times because the lack of electricity, water, and access to healthcare — was the main reason for the increase in deaths. Some of the causes included "inability to access medications," "the need for respiratory equipment requiring electricity," "problems with closed medical facilities or absent doctors," and "being unable to reach 911 services by telephone."
For the past nine months, Puerto Ricans in the island and the diaspora have lived in what feels like an alternate universe, yelling into the void and hoping someone might pay attention to how the disgracefully inadequate response of the government was literally killing people while the rest of America moved on.
We’ve learned the names of many of our dead: Paulita. Natalio. Isabel. José Daniel. Lorraine. But to see the numbers — 5,470, five thousand four hundred and seventy, cinco mil cuatrocientos setenta — felt like someone had ripped away a part of me.
Accurately reporting how many people died because of the hurricane was important to measure the magnitude of the disaster, and because that way the federal government could identify how to help Puerto Ricans. But the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló fumbled the whole thing — due to a variety of reasons that includes being woefully unprepared for the disaster, the lack of a clear death reporting system, the island's debt crisis, and a stubbornness against updating the death toll that defies logic — leading to President Donald Trump showing even less interest in helping the U.S. territory.
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Just take a look at what he said when he visited the island in October, when he was not busy throwing paper towels at survivors as if it was a damn basketball game. At the time, the Puerto Rican government's official death toll was 16.
"Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering," Trump said.
At least 1,833 people died after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005.
He added: "You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud."
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the president was too busy tweeting about NFL's national anthem controversy and feuding with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz instead of focusing his attention on hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. Per Politico, the lack of tweets and the fact that he didn't consider the hurricane "a real catastrophe" signaled to bureaucrats that the island was not a priority for an emergency response in comparison to Texas after Hurricane Harvey and Florida after Hurricane Irma.
Just take a look at these FEMA figures, unearthed by Politico: It took less than six days after Harvet to deploy 73 helicopters over Houston, which helped delivered emergency supplies and rescue people in critical situations, but it took at least three weeks after Maria before Puerto Rico saw a similar amount of choppers.
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Nine days after Harvey, FEMA had provided people in Houston with 5.1 million meals, 4.5 million liters of water, and over 20,000 tarps while also approving $141.8 million in individual assistance to storm victims. In the same span for Puerto Ricans, FEMA just delivered 1.6 million meals, 2.8 million liters of water, and about 5,000 tarps in the island, while approving only $6.2 million for Maria victims.
The federal government deployed 30,000 personnel in the Houston area in the first nine days after Harvey. At the same point after Maria, it had sent only about 10,000 people to Puerto Rico.
The response to the hurricane was a disgrace, by all accounts. Both the local and federal governments were unable to establish a timely, coordinated response — and that led to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of people.
Hurricane Maria changed life in Puerto Rico forever. The storm devastated the U.S. territory on September 20 and the aftermath was worse than anyone imagined: months without water or electricity, food shortages, a lack of medical resources, job losses, children without school, and mental health crisis that included a 29% increase in the number of cases of people dying by suicide.
To this day, nearly 13,314 customers are still without power in Puerto Rico. (Customers, according to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, can often represent one household where multiple people are living.) Several thousands remain without water, too.
The 2018 hurricane season starts June 1 and no one knows for sure what will happen if a storm like Maria hits the island once again. One thing we do know, however: History won't look kindly upon the fact that 5,740 Puerto Ricans died after the hurricane, that many of these deaths were preventable if the Rosselló and Trump administrations had done their job.
Puerto Rico, mi Isla, deserved better than this.
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