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Puerto Rico: The political manipulation of death counts after Hurricane Maria

By staff

As of Oct. 25, the Puerto Rican government’s official death count from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico still stands at 51. Many people have been puzzled by this impossibly low, reality-defying number since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico over a month ago, on Sept. 20. The official count of 51 deaths from Hurricane Maria is now starting to unravel.

The official death count matters. Not just because every life lost during this catastrophe in Puerto Rico matters. And not just because Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. colony means that post-hurricane deaths are the responsibility of the U.S. government. But also because these low numbers are being used politically by the Trump administration to put forward a fairy tale about a great recovery in Puerto Rico that erases the dire reality that continues on the ground and allows a massive injustice to continue without the outcry there would be if the truth were more widely understood.

Over a month after the hurricane the vast majority of people still don’t have electricity and many still don’t have water. Large numbers of many vulnerable populations, like elderly people and people with illnesses, are fleeing Puerto Rico for the U.S. because after more than a month without electricity and water, a cascading series of problems make basic survival extremely difficult.

Despite this grim reality on the ground in Puerto Rico, President Trump continues to use the low official death count to laud himself and his administration’s relief efforts. On Oct. 3 he said, “If you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous — hundreds and hundreds of people that died — and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering ... no one has ever seen anything like this.” On Oct. 19 he also bizarrely said, “I would give myself a ten” out of ten for his administration’s relief efforts in Puerto Rico.

Trump’s attempt to play at ‘which catastrophe was worse’ is a twisted game. In both Hurricane Maria and Katrina, many thousands of people have faced dire life-and-death circumstances because of a criminal lack of response from the U.S. government in the aftermath of hurricanes. It is not a coincidence that those affected were overwhelmingly Black people in the case of Katrina and Puerto Rican people in the case of Maria. This is a direct result of U.S. colonialism and institutionalized white supremacy.

The puzzlingly low official death count of 51 is now coming under increasing scrutiny. What counts as a hurricane-related death? Clearly more than 51 people have died in Puerto Rico between Sept. 20 and Oct. 18. On Oct. 27 the Puerto Rican government acknowledged that 911 people died of supposed ‘natural causes’ after Hurricane Maria. None of those have been counted in the official post-hurricane death toll. They also admitted that none of those people’s bodies were examined by a medical examiner (needed for consideration to be included in Hurricane Maria’s death toll) before being cremated.

At the same time, Karixia Ortiz Serrano, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety, admitted that there are in fact no official criteria for what qualifies as a hurricane-rated death. This has caused inconsistencies in what has been counted as a hurricane-related death. Do people who died from not receiving needed medications or care due to lack of electricity post-hurricane count as hurricane-related deaths or as deaths due to natural causes? The reporting of such deaths has reportedly varied.

With those 911 people’s bodies having been cremated who supposedly died of natural causes since the hurricane, there would seem to be no way to now review and conclude definitively how many of those deaths were in fact hurricane-related. And that is a very convenient thing for the Trump administration and the Puerto Rican government’s propaganda efforts to paint a rosy but false picture of the harsh reality in Puerto Rico. Additionally, there are still 69 people reported missing since Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, a fact rarely mentioned in official reports.

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