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Report: Hurricane Maria death toll far exceeds initial count in Puerto Rico

A recent report claims that well over 4,500 people in Puerto Rico died as a result of Hurricane Maria and its aftermath


By Anthony Orozco
Reading Eagle

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A recent report claims that well over 4,500 people in Puerto Rico died as a result of Hurricane Maria and its aftermath, which decimated the island.

While the report may be a shock to some, people with family in Puerto Rico and those who survived the Sept. 20 hurricane firsthand say they are not surprised by the number. Earlier estimates had been much lower, including a U.S. government official tally of 64 deaths.

A recent report claims that well over 4,500 people in Puerto Rico died as a result of Hurricane Maria and its aftermath
A recent report claims that well over 4,500 people in Puerto Rico died as a result of Hurricane Maria and its aftermath

"The first toll they said was impossible," said Juan Antonio Franqui, who lived through the hurricane and following months on the island. "There were certain areas no one could get to, people were trapped into their homes and landslides. How could that count be accurate?"

The recent report, published in the New England Journal of Medicine and written by researchers at Harvard University and other institutions, states that an estimated 4,645 people died in the hurricane and three months of aftermath. Researchers conducted a survey of more than 3,000 homes across the island to get that estimate. Most of those fatalities came indirectly after the hurricane, according to the report.

In late May, Puerto Rico's Institute of Statistics sued Puerto Rico's Health Department and Demographic Registrar's Office seeking to obtain data on the number of deaths following Hurricane Maria.

The Health Department released some information late last week, reporting an additional 1,397 deaths from September to the end of 2017, compared with the same period the previous year. However, officials did not provide causes of death for any of the 11,459 total people who died in those three months.

Franqui, 43, is a renowned local poet who has bounced back and forth between Puerto Rico and Reading in recent years and currently resides in Reading.

He weathered four months in Puerto Rico after the category 5 hurricane tore through the small island.

Franqui lived in Cayey, a mountainous region of Puerto Rico. He shares many of the memories hundreds of thousands of other Puerto Ricans have of the aftermath: no electricity, destroyed homes of loved ones and perpetually waiting in lines for gas for generators, food and other necessities.

As an Army veteran, Franqui said he was better equipped to live amid the devastation than many others were, especially the elderly or people who lived deep in the Puerto Rican countryside.

Franqui also helped locate a number of relatives for Puerto Ricans living in Berks, he said.

"We would walk onto one part of the highway where there was internet and people (in Berks) would ask us to search for their family they had not heard from," Franqui said. "It would take a whole day to download a picture."

Franqui, who returned to Reading with his girlfriend and son in January, said he personally learned of a handful of deaths caused by the aftermath of the massive storm.

The Harvard study reports the government of Puerto Rico and federal authorities did not provide adequate relief after the hurricane.

"Neither government, Puerto Rico or the U.S., was out there in the first days," Franqui said. "It was the civilians helping each other, people with tractors and construction vehicles clearing the roads."

Insufficient electricity and medical assistance led not only to months of hardship for millions but also thousands of deaths, according to the report.

Leira Arguizoni of Shillington said her uncle Nene Rodriguez, also of Cayey, died in January due to the island's hobbled infrastructure and emergency services.

Rodriguez, 60, died Jan. 26 after suffering a heart attack. An ambulance did not arrive soon enough and he took himself to the hospital, Arguizoni said.

I think a lot of older people died like that," said Arguizoni, a server at Mi Casa Su Casa Cafe in Reading. "If he would have made it there sooner, under different circumstances, I think he would have made it."

The report notes that Puerto Rican officials have refused to make public basic mortality statistics.

Arguizoni, 33, said the government's extremely low estimate of deaths and the general response to the crisis are examples of the problems within the leadership of the island and nation.

"I think the politicians are too corrupt, and they weren't bringing the aid quick enough or dispersing it like they should have," Arguizoni said.

Berks County saw an influx of Puerto Ricans who left the island after the hurricane.

The Daniel Torres Hispanic Center was a hub for many new arrivals, and more than 425 displaced Puerto Rican families have made contact with the center for referral services and other needs, said Michael Toledo, president and CEO of the center.

Toledo said the New England Journal of Medicine report confirmed his doubts on the extremely low death toll the U.S. government reported months after the hurricane.

"When they (the federal government) said there were only 60 deaths, I did not believe that was accurate, but the report is eye-opening," Toledo said. "It showed that the response was inadequate at best."

Toledo said he hopes government officials can learn from the official relief effort that will likely be considered by history as a failure.

"Hurricane Maria will have a legacy of missed opportunity; as a country we dropped the ball," Toledo said. "The island is still in dire straits, and we're heading into another hurricane season."

Toledo said he feels the failure was twofold: The federal government underestimated the needs of the island and Puerto Ricans are in some ways not regarded as equals to their fellow citizens.

"These are Americans," Toledo said. "Would we stand for such a poor response if it happened here or Philadelphia or any other part of the U.S.?"

Copyright 2018 Reading Eagle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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