Puerto Rico to Review Hurricane Maria Death Count
It is hard to believe that with all the damage Hurricane Maria caused in Puerto Rico, only 64 people were killed. Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló thinks so too.
On December 18, Governor Rosselló made an announcement that many of the island’s citizens feel was very much overdue. He said he had ordered a review of every death on the island since the hurricane made its landfall in September 2017.
That review is to be based on hard facts, not a statistical extrapolation, according to the governor. It will involve first getting hard tallies of all who died since that time for whatever reason. Then it will include interviews with medical staff, nurses, doctors, emergency care personnel and family members to assess how and why each person died.
Those deaths could have happened directly as the storm hit. Other deaths that would still be attributable to the storm include consequential deaths. For example, elderly patients who died because the hospitals they were in did not have electricity to function properly would be included. So, too, would those who relied on refrigeration for medicines at home, respiratory support equipment and other similar issues. Deaths from a lack of potable water and access to food when all was wiped out may end up on the list. And those who died from falling debris or from accidents in the process of cleaning up after the disaster might also be included.
What is known for a fact is that fatalities for every age group over 18 rapidly increased on the island after the storm hit. Those over the age of 50 were particularly hard hit.
According to the Puerto Rico-based Center for Investigative Journalism, which did a review of the island’s Demographic Registry, 985 more people than normal died in September and October, compared to similar statistics in 2016. The analysis showed that most of those deaths happened in hospitals and nursing homes and were related to complications connected with diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, hypertension, pneumonia, kidney disease and a
number of respiratory diseases.
The New York Times’ own investigation suggested that 1,052 more people died than the average in 2016 and 2015, based on a benchmark date of 42 days after the storm made landfall. The biggest surge in deaths was as a result of sepsis, an immune response connected with bacterial infections caused by unsanitary conditions. Such conditions were, with few exceptions, directly related to Hurricane Maria.
The CNN did its own survey by contacting Puerto Rican funeral homes for information. They reported 499 additional deaths, all of which the funeral directors felt were caused directly or indirectly by the storm.
The death count issue is politically sensitive. The White House, eager to close the whole Puerto Rican situation and label the federal failure a major success, is one of those areas putting pressure on all involved to drop the issue and move on. President Donald Trump himself said about the situation some time ago, “Everybody…can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico.” Many federal agencies have eased up on support to the island since that time, and the U.S. Congress, more preoccupied with making the wealthy and corporations richer with the new tax-cut law, has shown little interest in looking over the mess in Puerto Rico again.
For Governor Rosselló, then, it is a more courageous act than it may appear to review the real body count in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Finding the real truth will, of course, not bring the dead back. It will, however, help identify for many what exactly happened to their loved ones and friends. It will also help pave the way to helping others plan for how to deal with the full impact of a disaster of this nature in the future.