Hurricane Maria Official Death Toll in Puerto Rico: 2,975

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Poor Communication and Training Hindered Response

By CHAITRAM AKLU
(Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society)

On Aug. 28, the Puerto Rican Government announced the official death toll attributed to Hurricane Maria was 2,975. The announcement so infuriated President Donald Trump that he took to Twitter, his preferred mode of communication, in a puerile attempt to debunk the official total.

When it made landfall and battered Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, this mighty storm became the second deadliest hurricane to hit the United States. At Category 4, the 50-mile wide ‘Maria’ packed 150 mph. winds. It was the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in over 80 years and resulted in damages estimated at about $100 billion.

On Sept. 11, Trump had deemed the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico a year ago, “incredibly successful.” The following day, the media published photographs taken in April 2018, of 20, 000 pallets of bottled water, about a million bottles sitting exposed on an unused runway in Puerto Rico in April. Research has shown that the chemicals in plastic water bottles can breakdown when left in sunlight for long periods of time, and leach into the water and cause serious diseases when consumed.

He then tweeted on Sept. 13, 2018: “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really big numbers, like 3000…” He followed up on that tweet adding, “. This was done by the Democrats to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them to the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico.”

The most destructive Atlantic hurricanes occur in late August through September when the ocean water is warmest and provides maximum energy for hurricanes to form and strengthen. A category 4 hurricane produces sustained winds at 131 – 155 miles per hour and gusts that are higher and causes extreme damage. It would destroy roofs of houses, bring down trees, knock out bridges and destroy roads, and produces storm surges of 13 – 18 feet that would cause severe flooding in coastal areas. Death tolls increase after the passage of the hurricane. Hurricane Katrina was a Category 5 hurricane, and its sustained winds reached 175 mph.

Shortly after the storm, the Puerto Rican Government had put the death toll at just 64. However, that figure was immediately challenged as being too low because of the visible destruction to the infrastructure making ground transportation and communication to most areas impossible. Many of the island’s municipalities, especially in the east were virtually isolated.

One study, released in early Aug., reported (conservatively) 1,139 people died as a result of the storm. However, the official death toll of 2,975 was determined by an independent assessment of mortality due to the deadly storm. The study was commissioned by the Government of Puerto Rico and undertaken by the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health (GWSPH) which obtained data from interviews and death certificates and other documents. It found that “No areas of the island were unaffected, but in its aftermath, some municipalities suffered greater increases in mortality.” And “The largest numbers of deaths are concentrated in the northeast, and to a lesser extent, southwest portions of the island.”

The study also found that “Every social stratum and age group was affected by excess mortality; however, the impact differed by age and socioeconomic status. Risk of death was higher and persistent until the end of the study period for populations living in low socioeconomic development municipalities (a ratio of 1.5 at the end of February 2018). Older males (65+) experienced continuous elevated risk of death through February, while most other groups approach the baseline mortality risk at 2 and 4 months post-hurricane, and all do so by February.”

Further, “Because the agency’s electronic system was offline, everything was done on paper, and all certificates were collected by supervisors and taken to San Juan for quality review and data entry. This resulted in delays in death registration, ranging anywhere from 7-10 days to 17-27 days.” There was also a lack of training on death certificate completion by physicians and other personnel responsible for completing death certificates.

Three months after the hurricane, Marcus Lemonis, host of the TV show, The Profit took a film crew to the island and produced a documentary titled, The Profit in Puerto Rico: An American Crisis, with him as the narrator and took viewers to still isolated areas to bring attention to the destruction of homes and infrastructure, and desperation of people who had received no food or drinking water from FEMA. Footage showed people drinking water coming out of hillsides, samples of which later tested positive for E. coli.

In the aftermath of the crisis, voluntary organizations stepped in to help stave off a humanitarian crisis. Inhabitants were trying to leave the island by the thousands. In fact about 150 000 of the 3.1 million residents left for the mainland.

One organization, Operation Agua, formed by a coalition of four organizations – the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and its affiliates including the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT); the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Operation Blessing International and Hispanic Federation, was able to provide 100 000 Kohler water purifiers and filters. The units given to thousands of families in dire need, produce up to 40 liters of clean and safe drinking water per day and require no electricity.

The GWSPH assessment also found a lack of coordination in response contributed to failure of the response. “According to interviews with personnel from the various departments under the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the Department of Health DoH personnel, after the establishment of the DPS, which integrated key emergency and first responder agencies, emergency plans for agencies under the DPS umbrella were not updated and coordinated between agencies, including the communication plans. This led to inoperable and disconnected emergency plans and a lack of clarity about crisis and emergency risk communication protocol when Hurricane María struck.”

Natural disasters are phenomena that cannot be prevented. However, a sound emergency plan – well coordinated can help greatly in mitigating the impact of such phenomena – especially in the reduction of loss of life.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN. 

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