Wreckage Reporting: Getting Tools To Puerto Rican Journalists Post-Maria

Nov 27, 2017

It's been two months since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. But more than half the U.S. island territory's residents still have no electricity. A fifth still don't have running water. And so far there's no reliable official death toll from the storm – even though it's becoming apparent that hundreds more died than first reported.

All of which is why strong independent local journalism is so important in Puerto Rico right now. That's the goal of #ConnectPuertoRico, a National Association of Hispanic Journalists initiative that's getting Puerto Rican journalists the tools they need to report under the challenging circumstances there.

Veteran South Florida journalist Mc Nelly Torres, who was born in Puerto Rico, recently returned from a #ConnectPuertoRico visit to the island, and she spoke with WLRN's Tim Padgett about the project.

READ MORE: How South Florida Puerto Ricans Stepped Up - and Flew In - to Aid Their Demolished Island

Excerpts:

WLRN: You've done award-winning work here for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, NBC 6, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. But how would you describe what it's like trying to be a Puerto Rican journalist on the island in the wake of this hurricane?

TORRES: It's very frustrating, all these difficulties that this monster hurricane has brought to the local journalists. You don't have communications. You cannot reach out to people. I mean, think about not having electricity and you're writing on a computer. Some of the reporters are old enough to remember the 1980s and the '70s – you know, typewriters, that kind of thing. But the young people, they have no idea. And many businesses are closed. So newspapers, for example, it's completely difficult making advertising revenue.

The #ConnectPuertoRico effort has raised about $30,000 so far?

We got funding from the Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation. But we also raise money.

We have an island with over three million people. They have different needs. They have been devastated in different ways. They're not going to be watching CNN. So those local journalists are crucial. -Mc Nelly Torres

Crowdfunding?

Yes.

What are the most critical things you're getting to Puerto Rican journalists?

The most important things are the satellite phones and the Wi-Fi hubs. We just strategically gave those to the most in need, like La Cordillera, which is a newspaper in the mountains. They cover nine towns, and you know, that's the center of the island and it's really disconnected now.

Not far from places like Utuado,  a mountain town that was terribly hit.

Yes. And we went to Comerío; that town was devastated, flooded. We spent almost a day up there with the editor. Great, humble people who want to help the community.

And when they have the tools they need, what are the stories they're telling about this catastrophe that journalists who don't live in Puerto Rico aren't necessarily telling? 

We have an island with over three million people. They have different needs. They have been devastated in different ways. So those local journalists are crucial. Whether it's reporting about help that is coming, you know, let's say FEMA is opening an office or the Navy ship Comfort. That was a big issue. A lot of people didn't know about that ship. People who need those health services. They're not going to be watching CNN.

MORE DIGGING

My sense, for example, is that it was a Puerto Rican journalist who first started reporting that the number of people who died as a result of Hurricane Maria is much higher than the 16 President Trump kept citing early on.

When I saw that number I was like, this is wrong. There needs to be some more digging on this. The reporter who broke the story is a good friend of mine – Omaya Sosa Pascual. She's one of the co-founders of the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico. And I know that she has used the satellite phone [we gave her] while reporting because she told me these satellite phones help.

A story by the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico on the island's higher-than-reported hurricane death toll.
Credit Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

She contacted a lot of hospitals and funeral homes, and she was able to determine that the death toll should include a lot more people who died for a lot of hurricane-related circumstances. So when you put two and two together, their [official] numbers don't add up. It just doesn't make any sense.

How important was this to you personally to be able to go to your home island and start helping the local journalists then?

This project happening, to me it was like sent from God, because Puerto Ricans, we love where we were born. I left Puerto Rico over 30 years ago. We always go back. 

The NAHJ's crowdfunding campaign for #ConnectPuertoRico can be found here.