Puerto Rico Is Finally Going to Do a Proper Hurricane Maria Death Count

Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Puerto Rico is passing the handling of its Hurricane Maria death count to the Milken Institute of Public Health at George Washington University, Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced Thursday. The news comes after months of criticism over how the U.S. territory has been attributing the deaths of American citizens to the storm that ravaged the island more than five months ago.

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The university will work closely with the Puerto Rico Demographic Registry, the Bureau of Forensic Sciences, and potentially the University of Puerto Rico’s Graduate School of Public Health, to look at deaths between September 20, 2017, through the end of February 2018, according to a press release sent to Earther and tweets from Frances Robles, a reporter with The New York Times.

“We also want to employ the most recent and up to date science so we can properly and scientifically estimate what the death toll in Puerto Rico is,” said Rosselló, during the press conference.

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So far, the official death count still sits at 64. But an investigation from The New York Times places that number closer to 1,000. Latino USA found similar results. CNN’s numbers were much smaller (though less comprehensive) but still seven times greater than the official count.

These media investigations looked at daily mortality data since the hurricane, as well as the number of dead at funeral homes. The government, on the other hand, needs to document details of every deceased person and cause of death to formally include a person in its death count.

The Puerto Rican government responded to the media analyses by ordering a recount in December. However, Rosselló put the same dude who was previously overviewing the death toll in charge of leading the recount. Now, Puerto Rico Public Safety Secretary Héctor M. Pesquera won’t be running the show; Dr. Carlos Santos-Burgoa will. He’s the director of George Washington University’s Global Health Policy program.

The Puerto Rican government has allocated $305,000 for this study, but the university would need an additional $1.1 million to investigate particular cases more deeply during a planned second phase. A science-based, peer-reviewed paper should be out within a year, with preliminary results out in three months. Importantly, the study won’t include “missing” persons. Right now, just four people remain officially “missing,” per Robles’ tweets of the press conference.

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The ultimate goal, though, is to gather information about how many people died and why in wake of Hurricane Maria to prevent deaths in future disasters. And let me tell you: They’re going to come.

“Each life is important, and we recognize the sensitivity and responsibility with which this subject should be studied to avoid affecting the relatives and friends of the deceased,” Rosselló said, in a press release. “We are confident that ... this study may serve as a model for other jurisdictions of the nation and the world exposed to emergency situations like those that Puerto Rico faced after the passage of Hurricane Maria.”

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Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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DISCUSSION

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Excuse me while I give unsolicited advice on Environmental Justice (EJ).

First an analogy. About the same time EJ legislation was enacted, much of the chatter from our esteemed chattering class was focussed on corporate diversity. This is the early 1990s or around there. What kind of happened was, corporations and important foundations diversified its upper ranks by creating a positions like Chief Diversity Officer (CDO). Then corporate America went balls to the wall with sending everything and anything that could employ diverse folks in the US to China. For instance, Apple could hire a person of color at an upper echelon and then shutter it’s US manufacturing and contract with Foxconn to build stuff. Letting them worry about diversity. That’s just Apple. Every business sector did this. M&A geniuses even had an offshoring requirement before funding mergers and acquisitions. And a little something something for the CDO in the form of a huge salary and benefits.

As far as EJ goes, a focus on Puerto Rico, while essential, doesn’t really stir the injustice ire of many folks in the US who are equally getting fucked by the man(s). For instance, corporate America has and is even more so moving polluting industries to rural areas. They’re also given (from fed and state) loads of tax incentive to do so. This taxation could help for things like natural disaster preparedness (like floods and hurricanes). They did this in Puerto Rico in the early 1980s. Then by the late aughts, much of PR industry moved out to a cheaper poor area of the world after the tax breaks and incentives vanished. This happened around 10 years ago. It’s easier to set up a polluting industry without a punch of pesky folks pointing out problems like injustice.

I guess my point is this. If EJ is going to be effective beyond environmental policy studies at Harvard and Yale and influential foundations who hire those grads, it will have to spread its focus on all disenfranchised folks be it folks of color or Trump’s deplorables. You know, the folks who New York Times Columbia J-school writers awkwardly try to introduce us liberal subscribers to.

So if you’re a white folk living in Mike Pence’s southern Indiana, breathing the US’s shittist air that’s been polluted from all types of polluting industry, you’re on opioids, potentially have HIV/aids from injecting cheap heroin, and have no social safety net because there’s no money for that - then you’re not going to give a shit about poor folks in Puerto Rico. Especially when the excellently written piece is perceived to be written by a New York City liberal with fancy education. Much of America’s hinterlandians voted for Trump because at least he wants them to have guns. Republicans would love to see most of America become like crabs in a barrel, where disadvantage folks of one ethnicity gets pissed off at another disadvantage group for getting free paper towels. MAGA. At least environmental nonprofits focusing on EJ may see a spike in donations because of MAGA.