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Puerto Rico’s Uncounted Dead: Study Says Hurricane Maria Toll Far Higher Than Official Count (Pt. 1/2)

Puerto Rico's Uncounted Dead: Study Says Hurricane Maria Toll Far Higher Than Official Count

A Harvard study has found that at least 4,645 people have died as a result of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, 70 times more than Puerto Rico officials claim. We speak to Omaya Sosa, co-founder of Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, who first reported  the government’s official death toll was underreported.

AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Maté. When he visited Puerto Rico in October, President Trump lauded what he called, the “low death toll” from Hurricane Maria.

DONALD TRUMP: Every death is a horror. But if you look at a real catastrophe, like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here with really a storm that was just totally overpowering, nobody’s ever seen anything like this. What is your death count as of this moment, seventeen? Sixteen people certified, sixteen people, versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people.

AARON MATÉ: But for months, Puerto Rico’s residents and experts have warned that the death toll has been vastly undercounted, and a new study confirms their fears. A team of researchers estimates that at least 4,645 people have died as a result of Hurricane Maria. About one third of the deaths were caused by delayed or inaccessible medical treatment. Omaya Sosa is co-founder of Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism. In September, just days after Hurricane Maria hit, she broke the story that the government’s official death toll was far too low. Omaya, welcome. Talk to us about the reporting you’ve done from the days after Hurricane Maria, what you found, and how it tracks with what had just come out in this new study today?

OMAYA SOSA: Thanks For having me, Aaron. We started reporting on this story literally a couple of days after the hurricane. We heard what the government was putting out, and what we saw on the streets, and from regular people, policemen, rescuers, people at the hospitals, doctors, was very different from what the government was saying. So, already, from September 28, we published our first story, saying that we already knew it was dozens more than what the government was saying. And we have continued investigating since.

In Early December, we said that those first forty days, the death toll was around 1,000 in excess, compared to 2016, and that was based on official mortality data, only covering the month of October and the first ten days after the hurricane in September. So, this report basically confirms what we were already reporting in September, October and November, and finally in that first week of December, that the death toll was much higher, that many of the deaths happened after the hurricane because of the inadequate response and because of problems with the health care system in Puerto Rico. Which is really a pity, because when President Trump got here and made those unfortunate comments, a lot could have been done to prevent thousands of these deaths.

So, the data that Harvard put out today is consistent with what we have been reporting and with what we have been investigating. We are still in the middle of the second phase of our investigation, and we’re actually concentrating on the health care system and what happened there. And we are seeing that the deaths that were linked to problems with services, health care services, are probably even higher than what Harvard is saying today.

AARON MATÉ: So, when you say there that more could have been done to prevent these deaths, even after President Trump spoke. What are you referring to? Are you referring to the health facilities or particular?

OMAYA SOSA: There was no plan from our government and our health department to really get to know what was happening on the ground in the health care facilities, and when I say health care facilities, I refer to all the levels in health care, hospitals, elderly homes, maybe smaller doctors and specialists, offices and so forth. It was a disaster, it was a complete disaster, and all the patients that needed lifesaving services, or that were even stable but needed some kind of support- like for example, people that depend on oxygen, or people that need dialysis, those persons were really left stranded with no support system. And many of those people died.

The government could have put in a response plan, an emergency response plan in terms of public health to first know what was going on, and then tried to canalize these patients to where the best facilities were, or support certain facilities. But there was no organization of any kind. There was no information for patients to know where there were hospitals that were actually working. It was a complete mess.

AARON MATÉ: Sorry to interrupt, but you mentioned oxygen. If I have it right from your reporting, the lack of available oxygen is due, in large part, to the fact that delivery of oxygen is privatized. Do I have that right?

OMAYA SOSA: Yes, it’s privatized, and many roads were- you could not drive through them after the hurricane aftermath. The electricity was down everywhere, basically, so these companies were not working. There are not many of them, and they were not working. So, the whole system of delivery of oxygen and supplies and medicines- it wasn’t only oxygen, it was- all kinds of supplies was stopped. And there was no effective way for facilities to get these life-supporting services; medication, insulin for diabetics, for example. And the government didn’t do much to try and fix this.

AARON MATÉ: What do you think accounts for the vast discrepancy between the official death toll- we heard President Trump, back in October, say it was sixteen, and later on, the government of Puerto Rico increased that to just sixty-four. But now the study says it’s over 4,600. What accounts for the discrepancy?

OMAYA SOSA: I think there was a total lack of interest from our Puerto Rican government and from the federal government to really try and get to know what was going on. The resources were not assigned. From week number one, they already knew that people were dying at hospitals. I did a couple of interviews with the health secretary, our health secretary. Months after, I did an interview with the governor himself, and I told him we were seeing all these data, and what was going on. And there was no interest in really assigning researchers to know what was going on, on the ground. And that’s what- maybe they thought it would reflect badly on the image of how the response was coming along. I don’t know, you know, they never said.

AARON MATÉ: All right. We’ll pause there and come back in part two. My guest is Omaya Sosa, co-founder of Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism.