Puerto Rico to Re­view Hur­ri­cane Maria Death Count

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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.

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