Maria set off months of pain, death

Slow-mo­tion dis­as­ter kept Puerto Ri­cans from get­ting care for treat­able ail­ments

The Detroit News - - Trump Administration - BY MICHAEL WEIS­SENSTEIN, ANA CAM­POY AND OMAYA SOSA As­so­ci­ated Press

San Juan, Puerto Rico – Ra­mona Gon­za­lez did not drown when Hur­ri­cane Maria drenched Puerto Rico. She did not die in the tem­pest, or from de­struc­tion wrought by the storm’s 154 mph winds.

Instead, this dis­abled, 59-year-old woman died a month later, from sep­sis – caused, says her fam­ily, by an un­treated bed­sore.

In all, the storm and its af­ter­math took the lives of un­for­tu­nates like Gon­za­lez and thou­sands of oth­ers, many of whom could have been saved with stan­dard med­i­cal treat­ment. This was a slow-mo­tion, months-long dis­as­ter that kept Puerto Ri­cans from get­ting the care they needed for treat­able ail­ments, even as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump lauded his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­sponse.

A year af­ter Maria roared across the Caribbean, re­porters for The As­so­ci­ated Press, the news site Quartz and Puerto Rico’s Cen­ter for In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism have put to­gether the most de­tailed por­trait yet of the ag­o­niz­ing fi­nal days of vic­tims of the storm, in­ter­view­ing 204 fam­i­lies of the dead and re­view­ing the ac­counts of 283 more to tell the sto­ries of hereto­fore anony­mous vic­tims.

Trump cast doubt on the storm’s widely ac­cepted death toll Thurs­day, tweet­ing that “3000 peo­ple did not die” when Maria hit af­ter a near-miss by Hur­ri­cane Irma in Septem­ber, 2017. He said the death count had been in­flated “by the Democrats in or­der to make me look as bad as pos­si­ble,” by adding un­re­lated deaths to the toll from causes like old age.

But the joint in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­flects how Puerto Rico’s most vul­ner­a­ble fell vic­tim to the dire con­di­tions cre­ated by the storms.

Dis­abled and el­derly peo­ple were dis­charged from over­whelmed hos­pi­tals with bed­sores that led to fa­tal in­fec­tions. Med­i­cal oxy­gen ran out. Peo­ple caught lung in­fec­tions in swel­ter­ing pri­vate nurs­ing homes and state fa­cil­i­ties. Kid­ney pa­tients got ab­bre­vi­ated treat­ments from dial­y­sis cen­ters that lacked gen­er­a­tor fuel and fresh wa­ter, de­spite pleas for fed­eral and local of­fi­cials to treat them as a higher pri­or­ity, ac­cord­ing to pa­tient ad­vo­cates.

Along with post-storm con­di­tions, each death has a com­plex mix of causes mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to defini­tively ap­por­tion blame in ev­ery case. But crit­ics say many could have been saved by bet­ter prepa­ra­tion and emer­gency re­sponse.

“I was look­ing for help and no one came,” said Maria Gon­za­lez Munoz, who spent 30 days af­ter the storm car­ing for her sis­ter in her blacked-out home.

Maria and her brother took Ra­mona to a hospi­tal twice, and tried to get her aboard a Navy med­i­cal ship in San Juan har­bor, but couldn’t save their ail­ing sis­ter.

“No one was ask­ing af­ter us, no one from the gov­ern­ment,” said Gon­za­lez Munoz, 66.

The hur­ri­cane’s true death toll has fu­eled de­bate since the first days of the storm, in large part be­cause of its near-unique na­ture.

Largely due to decades of ne­glect and years of fis­cal cri­sis, the Puerto Ri­can elec­tri­cal grid col­lapsed into the United States’ long­est-ever black­out af­ter Maria hit on Sept. 20, 2017. That spawned a long and deadly tail for the storm, with hun­dreds of deaths com­ing long af­ter the first weeks of the storm, as med­i­cal equipment failed and sick peo­ple weak­ened in the suf­fo­cat­ing heat.

Re­searchers from Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity hired by Puerto Rico’s gov­ern­ment es­ti­mated last month that 2,975 peo­ple had died be­cause of Maria in the six months af­ter land­fall.

Though Trump con­tin­ued to as­sert this week that his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts in Puerto Rico were “in­cred­i­bly suc­cess­ful,” both the local and fed­eral gov­ern­ments have been heav­ily crit­i­cized for in­ad­e­quate plan­ning and post-storm re­sponse.

Ra­mon Espinosa / AP

Maria Gon­za­lez Munoz, right, and Juan Manuel Gon­za­lez, pose with an im­age of Je­sus sur­rounded by pho­tos of her sis­ter Ra­mona, when she was sick and dur­ing her funeral, in Puerto Rico.

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