Florida Roundup: Calculating The Death Toll of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico

Dec 26, 2017

About 4,700 people died in Puerto Rico in September and October of 2016. A year later, 5,800 people died over that same two-month stretch. Could the difference of 1,100 deaths been caused by Hurricane Maria?

According to the island’s official count, the storm killed 62 people. The Center for Investigative Journalism looked at government data on deaths, trying to get a handle on Maria’s death toll on the island.

A New York Times analysis of government data found that 1,042 more people died in Puerto Rico in the month and a half after the storm than died a year earlier with no hurricane.

Meantime, the longest blackout in American history continues with half the island still without power more than three months after the storm. Puerto Rico's governor had hoped to get most of the power back by this month, but the Army Corps of Engineers says some areas will have to wait until May.

And the just-passed tax bill treats the U.S. territory as a foreign country by creating a new tax for American companies with subsidiaries in Puerto Rico. This will hit drug and medical device manufacturers on the island.

On the Florida Roundup,  WLRN’s Tom Hudson spoke with Florida state Rep. Robert Asencio, New York Times Miami Bureau Chief Patricia Mazzei, New York Times reporter Frances Robles and NPR correspondent Greg Allen. Here are some highlights from their conversation.

WLRN: What have you been hearing this week about the state of the island?

ASENCIO: As conditions continue to improve for some, there's hardship that's being endured by quite a few people on the island. Power is the main concern as to the cause of the continued hardship. The other part of this is, obviously, the tax bill. [It’s] very concerning to many on the island as to what's going to happen to their employment, quality of life or the economic state of the island.

We've gone from the hurricane that devastated the island to now potentially administrative action or congressional action that was taken by lawmakers that will impact the island. [This] certainly heightens the fear and concern for those on and off the island.

We continue to see people continue to evacuate off the island. I believe as of the 17th of December, there were roughly 264,000 people who had traveled via commercial aircraft to the state of Florida. [That] doesn't take into account those that have left the island to other ports and have subsequently come to the state of Florida or those that will continue to come off the island as the hardship remains. We're really at a defining period of this island and certainly the Puerto Ricans stateside and on the island.

Is there going to be a financial impact on the state of Florida because of the influx of Puerto Ricans? Are you and your colleagues ready for the kind of cost that the hurricane may put on the 2018 spending plan for the state?

ASENCIO: I can't see how it will not have an impact on the state. Certainly Florida is the only one in a cohort of [host] states that have remained. That means we receive those that come  from the island up until recently [providing] the TSA [Temporary Shelter Assistance]. The temporary shelter system's program was good to expire on Dec. 24th. So my colleagues and I wrote a letter and we sent it to the governor of Puerto Rico, asking him to ask for the extension of the TSA benefits.

[The] transfer of people coming specifically to Florida is not a bad thing as long as we can integrate them into our economy, as long as they can find jobs and housing [so they can] be productive members. We also have to consider the fact that Irma hit the state of Florida and we're also being impacted by Harvey and the natural struggles people have when they migrate to Florida. So yes, we will see it's going to be a very contentious period. And I will tell you that as the conditions continue to endure on the island we will have more coming off the island.

What is the most fair and accurate account of the fatalities that can be attributed to Hurricane Maria right now and how does that compare to the official death toll out of Puerto Rico?

ROBLES: The big thing is whether you count the sort of things that happen later  as a consequence of there being no electricity.  I have some confidence, maybe not 100 percent accuracy but more or less confidence, in the 64 [people dead] in terms of people that drown, people that got taken away by mudslides, hit by a tree on the 20th of September. Maybe there's a few missing, but more or less that's going to be fine.

What happens that day on, say, people that went to hospitals and the power was out and they couldn't get any oxygen machines, people who didn't get dialysis for five or six days, people who waited a day for an ambulance to come to their houses?  So, that universe of deaths is skyrocketed on the 20th of September in a way that when you look at the data it's staggering.

What we did was that we went day by day and we counted it and it came to about 1,000 in the first 42 days after the hurricane. The government of Puerto Rico now decided, after a lot of bruising media coverage, to start going through one by one to determine how many of those belong on that list of hurricane deaths.

Talk to us about the process that the governor of Puerto Rico essentially ordered this week after the reporting came out that the death toll that could be indirectly attributed to Hurricane Maria for weeks afterward is 1,000 or more over the official death toll numbers.

MAZZEI: Well, he's ordered his administration to basically go to the families of the dead and conduct interviews to find out the circumstances in which they died and maybe go to their doctors or the coroners.

Now the challenge here is the more time that passes the harder it is probably to get these interviews with coroners or doctors who probably saw a lot of patients to remember exactly what happened to each person, and it's not like they can conduct autopsies on these people, in part, because some of them have been buried, obviously, but also a lot of them have been cremated. The government authorized, I think it was 911 cremations at one point and that was for the first four weeks after the storm. And so, this is really a process of going back to families, many of them who feel wronged in that their loved ones were not counted as Hurricane Maria victims and just finding out with this person, [may] have suffered because of the conditions that were created by the storm.

Greg Allen, you were recently on the island, talk to us a little bit about what you saw, what you reported on and those conversations with Puerto Ricans regarding these fatalities that are getting a closer look now.

ALLEN:  I was surprised by the amount of patience that people in Puerto Rico have dealt [the aftermath of the hurricane]. Mostly because I think that resiliency down there, in terms of the infrastructure, it's always been somewhat in question, and so they've been much more self-sufficient than say people in Florida or Texas and other places along the Gulf Coast have had to be. I think they've been more patient, but I see that wearing thin now. We've had the demonstrations happening yesterday in some cities around Puerto Rico. People saying it's time for us to get power back.