Puerto Rico Dealth Toll-The Orlando Times
Frustration Arises As Puerto Rican’s Death Toll Increases
BY JALESSA CASTILLO, TIMES STAFF WRITER
Differing values regarding Hurricane Maria’s death toll in Puerto Rico have led to confusion, demonstrations demanding the truth, and overall skepticism from the Puerto Rican community.
A study by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that the official death toll of 64 people was a “substantial underestimate of the true burden of mortality after Hurricane Maria.”
The researchers visited more than 3,000 homes across the island and interviewed their residents, asking if anyone in their households had died, and whether the storm and its aftermath might have been responsible. They reported that 38 people living in their households had died between Sept. 20, 2017, when Hurricane Maria hit, and the end of that year.
The study was published in The New England Journal of Medicine and it estimated that the death toll from Hurricane Maria may be as high as 4,645 people.
Because the number surveyed was relatively small in comparison to the entire population, there is a large margin of error. The true number of deaths could range from nearly 800 to over 8,000 people. According to The New York Times, the widely reported figure of 4,645 was the midpoint of that statistical window, known as a 95 percent confidence interval.
The study’s main finding was that residents of Puerto Rico died at a much higher rate during the three months after the hurricane than they did during the same time in the previous year, and that roughly a third of those deaths resulted from delayed medical care.
In response, hundreds of protesters gathered on Saturday to demand that the United Nations assess the number of casualties.
The protest was organized by the Collective Action for Puerto Rico, a coalition of faith-based and labor organizations. Protesters held a variety of signs with slogans including, “Puerto Rican lives matter”.
They took off their shoes as a symbol of those who died as a result of the storm but who were not initially counted and called for assistance for people still struggling on the island.
“When we see catastrophes happen in other states or in other places by the next week we are getting specific digits of how many people were affected. But, eight months later is when we are really getting to know how many people died, it’s insane ” said Yolimar, a student representative for the Puerto Rican Student Association at UCF.
She is currently in Puerto Rico visiting her family since transferring to the University of Central Florida as a Criminal Justice major after the hurricane. As of our conversation, her family still did not have water or constant electricity in their home.
“We are already entering into the next hurricane season, how are we going to get prepared if two days ago the number is still increasing,” she said.
The original death toll only included people whose death certificates state Hurricane Maria as a contributor. But after pressured, the Puerto Rican government announced in December that all deaths that had occurred in the months after Hurricane Maria would be reviewed and that people who died either directly or indirectly from the storm and its aftermath would be included in a revised tally.
“Direct” refers to deaths caused by effects of the storm itself. “Indirect” deaths include those caused by related factors, such as difficulty reaching a hospital for care, or trouble refilling medical prescriptions.
Elizabeth Cuevas Neunder endured Hurricane Irma but unfortunately had to return to Puerto Rico two weeks after Hurricane Maria to bury her brother who was a victim of the disaster.
“The number keeps changing because you can’t trust the government in Puerto Rico, there has always been a cover up of everything,” said Neunder, Founder/CEO of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Florida, “It burns you up inside and you want to spill it out but being a lady you always need to swallow your tongue.”
After acknowledging that its original tally was a significant undercount, the Puerto Rican government contacted the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University to conduct an investigation. The first phase will use information gathered from medical systems and funeral homes on the island. In the second phase, the researchers will conduct interviews with those who lost loved ones. The results from the initial phase are set to be released this summer and the results from the second phase are estimated nine months later.
“Due to the loss of power and low resources that came after the hurricane many patients who were in critical condition died. There were few hospitals functioning during and after Maria and since transportation was a major issue patients in critical condition couldn’t receive the attention they needed,” said Richelle Cruz, a student who transferred to Valencia College after Hurricane Maria.
She added, “Change is difficult to achieve and accept, but even though things won’t go back to being the same, with hard work and time, I believe things will get better.”