Vox reports: Death tolls are the primary way we understand the impact of a disaster. And for nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, as a humanitarian crisis was intensifying, the death toll was frozen at 16.
“Sixteen people certified,” Trump said on October 3 during his visit to the island, repeating a figure confirmed by the territory’s governor. “Everybody watching can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico.”
It was a moment that crystallized two conflicting narratives about the Puerto Rico disaster. The first one, from the federal government and Puerto Rico’s governor, is of a disaster that’s been managed well, with lives being saved and hospitals getting back up and running.
Lives surely have been saved in the response. But images and reports from the ground tell a story of people, cut off from basic supplies and health care, dying. They tell of hospitals running out of medication and fuel for their generators and struggling to keep up with the “avalanche of patients that came after the hurricane,” as one journalist put it.
The death toll from the hurricane is now up to 45, according to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. But 90 percent of the 3.4 million American citizens on the island still don’t have power, and 35 percent still don’t have water to drink or bathe in. And given how deadly power outages can be, 45 deaths seems low, according to disaster experts.
At Vox, we decided to compare what the government has been saying with other reports of deaths from the ground. We searched Google News for reports of deaths in English and Spanish media from Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. We found reports of a total of 81 deaths linked directly or indirectly to the hurricane. Of those, 45 were the deaths certified by the government. The remaining 36 deaths were confirmed by local public officials or funeral directors, according to the reports. We also found another 450 reported deaths, most of causes still unknown, and reports of at least 69 people still missing. [Continue reading…]