Reports of staggering death toll in Puerto Rico prompt calls for a hearing

Lawmakers have largely been silent in the wake of a report indicating between 4,000 and 6,000 people may have died.

Toa Baja, Puerto Rico. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden
Toa Baja, Puerto Rico. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden

Prominent Democrats are calling for a hearing into the death toll in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria last fall. A study published last week showed that the death toll may have been 70 times greater than the official number provided by the government.

Members of the House Natural Resources Committee asked Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) to address findings that the death toll in Puerto Rico may be closer to 4,645 and as high as 5,740, according to a Harvard report in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published last Tuesday. Official reports put the death count at just 64 people.

As Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, the House Natural Resources Committee heads federal oversight of the island.

In a letter sent Monday, Reps. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), and Darren Soto (D-FL), joined Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) in demanding a hearing addressing that discrepancy and what appears to be a “staggering loss of American life” following one of the costliest storms in U.S. history.

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If the numbers indicated by the NEJM report are confirmed, Hurricane Maria would be the deadliest storm in modern U.S. history, with Puerto Rico representing the majority of the casualties.

“With hurricane season now upon us, time is of the essence,” the letter reads. “It is imperative that our country learn from this trying experience and gather any lessons for future planning.”

“Further, it is our responsibility to be honest about the shortcomings of the Trump Administration’s response to this disaster, provide answers to the Puerto Rican people, and take immediate steps to correct any outstanding inadequacies,” the letter continues. “A timely hearing would contribute to each of these aims.”

An additional 10 lawmakers signed the letter, which requests that such a meeting take place in advance of the Congressional August recess. A spokesperson for the committee told Yahoo News the meeting is likely to come in July.

The letter marks a shift in the response from lawmakers in the week since the death toll study’s publication. Officials remained largely silent on the findings, with the exception of a small handful of Democratic lawmakers and progressive organizations.

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Death toll numbers estimated in the report have themselves proven contentious. Six months after the hurricane, the New York Times released a report estimating the loss of life might be around 1,052. The Harvard study placed those numbers much higher.

Puerto Rico’s Institute of Statistics (PRIS) and the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) went to court last week demanding the release of data relating to the death toll. Under pressure, Puerto Rico’s health department released partial island-wide general death toll data. That data shows 2,928 deaths in September before rising to 3,040 in October. While those numbers are not as dramatic as those estimated by the Harvard study and do not account for the island’s plummeting population, they do indicate a sharp spike following Hurricane Maria’s landfall last September.

They also counter the government line that the death toll was fewer than 100: according to the island’s internal records, at least 1,400 additional people died from September to December 2017 versus that same period in 2016.

More details may soon come to light. On Tuesday, a judge ruled that CPI can have access to death certificates on the island, a move the organization hailed as a win for transparency.

For many Puerto Ricans, the debate over the death toll has driven home a sense of abandonment, by both the mainland United States and the island government. Residents have left thousands of shoes in front of the Capitol building in San Juan since last week, commemorating the lives lost. A number of locals brought signs, leveling accusations of mistreatment at both the Trump administration and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.

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In the face of such criticism, Rosselló maintained last week that the government is awaiting a commissioned study from George Washington University on the death toll. Rosselló said there would be “hell to pay” if the data is withheld by various officials on the island.

The 2018 Atlantic hurricane season officially began last Friday, on June 1. Large swathes of Puerto Ricans, many of them based in low-income communities, are still without proper plumbing and many still have blue tarps for roofs. In the mainland United States, news of the death toll was largely overshadowed by controversy over racist comments made by a Roseanne Barr, a television personality.