Puerto Rico hurricane deaths total thousands, Blumenthal calls for accountability
NEW HAVEN — Eight months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the island is still coping with the aftermath and the thousands of lives lost.
A study published recently by the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard estimated the official count of 64 lives lost to Hurricane Maria has been drastically unreported. The Harvard study said the death toll is closer to 5,000.
In light of the new data, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., met in the city with Puerto Rican community leaders to call for a hearing to investigate and uncover what happened on the island that led to the massive death toll, adding that the responsible individuals and agencies need to be held accountable for the “avoidable, senseless, preventable” deaths.
“We need to be absolutely clear what the cause of these deaths were,” Blumenthal said, noting the the chronically ill, infirm, children and the elderly were disproportionately affected.
The study indicated a lack of electricity, drinkable water and transportation made medical care unavailable and caused a significant impact during the aftermath of the storm.
“People who needed equipment to breath couldn’t use it because of a lack of power,” Blumenthal said. “People who needed water to take medicine couldn’t find it because the water was undrinkable. People who needed access to hospitals couldn’t get there because of lack of transportation. These basic necessities are what should have been provided to fellow Americans in Puerto Rico.”
The 4,645 estimate is 70 times greater than what was previously reported and is more than twice the number of people killed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said Connecticut Puerto Rican Agenda President Jason Ortiz. The death toll from Hurricane Maria could be as high as 8,000 because the research only studied from when the hurricane hit until December 2017.
“This inexcusable failure by Americans to provide basic necessities in the wake of a natural disaster is unforgivable,” Blumenthal said.
He added that the drastically higher estimate shouldn’t surprise anyone who visited the island after the hurricane, where he saw a lack of basic medical care, and closed roads that prevented people from getting necessities.
“This is clearly 5,000 deaths due to negligence by the federal government,” Ortiz said. “There is no way around that. These people could have been saved had we gotten there faster.”
Ortiz’s grandmother, whom he couldn’t contact for three months, was living on the island when the hurricane hit. When he finally made contact, the message was she was OK, “and what OK means in the middle of a giant disaster just means they’re not dead,” he said. “We knew that was a temporary situation that could get worse.”
On the verge of another hurricane season, the island is still without electricity in areas, without transportation or drinkable water, Blumenthal said, and the power grid is no more resilient now than it was a year ago when the storm hit.
“We will see another tragedy because of the government’s failure to respond to make that power grid resilient,” he said. “The death toll of 4,645 was avoidable. If the Trump administration had responded with the urgency and seriousness that was required, many of those deaths could have been prevented, many of those lives could have been saved.”
Eva Bermudez Zimmerman, candidate for lieutenant governor, who also has family in Puerto Rico who survived the storm, joined Blumenthal in New Haven. Her grandmother’s and her father’s houses were torn apart and her cousins saw their home destroyed in a mudslide, she said, but her family’s heartache and struggle isn’t unique to her.
“It’s very emotional because every American here in Connecticut has some connection to Puerto Rico,” she said. “With the amount of Puerto Ricans we have in this state, you cannot say you don’t have a connection.”
She said the effort to help the island won’t go far, though, unless political action is taken.
“We had a natural disaster and we could have prevented lives from being lost and we didn’t,” she said. “We didn’t because it’s a political catastrophe. For whatever reason we’re here talking about 4,645 lives and that is embarrassing. It’s embarrassing for Americans to have to remember lives that could have been prevented from being lost.”
The island had long struggled with decaying infrastructure that made the impact of the hurricane much worse.
“The seeds for this crisis were planted long before it happened,” Blumenthal said. “But the emergency response was an abject failure. Would the United States of America have tolerated this lack of electricity or drinkable water if it had been Texas or Tennessee or Connecticut? I don’t think so. ... It’s a catastrophe that should break our hearts and tear our consciousnesses rather than be rejected in this way as not a real catastrophe. Unless we see a real commitment to rebuild the island, we will see the same kind of death toll again.”