There was a time almost two months ago (two months), when Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Health Rafael Rodríguez Mercado told the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI) the following about why the government’s official death count six days after Hurricane María was only at 19, when reports through social media and firsthand accounts were strongly suggesting that the number appeared to be much higher:
With respects to the hurricane [there are] 19 deaths so far, which the governor reported, but they have also made mass graves. We were informed that there are people who have buried their relatives because they are in places where help has yet to arrive. They have reported six to seven cases as well. Remember that many people died because of medical problems because medical help couldn’t arrive on time. They were left isolated. And once in a while, we hear about people who were isolated and being rescued. Remember that this has been something very disastrous, and you have to tell the truth as it is.
It would be the last time for Rodríguez Mercado as the main government voice when it came to discussing this topic. Around that time, Secretary of Public Security Héctor Pesquera would take over. In addition, around that same time, the CPI published its first story about the underreported death count. That September 28 story from the CPI, which is now collaborating with Latino Rebels and Latino USA to publish English-language versions of this original Spanish-language stories from Puerto Rico, was already reporting scenarios that suggested a higher death count, and even in that article, Pesquera was saying that lack of communication “kept many people from knowing the whereabouts of their families,” the story said.
Around the time that the first CPI story was published, the Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security praised the limited death count from María. On September 29, our founder Julio Ricardo Varela, who works as the senior digital editor for Latino USA, asked the DHS about those comments and got this response.
— Julio Ricardo Varela (@julito77) September 29, 2017
On September 30, Julio was raising this issue about the CPI report on MSNBC:
On October 1, the CPI’s Omaya Sosa, who broke the September 28 story, appeared on Latino Rebels Radio:
On October 2, the CPI published another story by Sosa, which included new comments by Pesquera.
“I’m not saying it has not happened, I’m saying we can only certify what we know. When that information arrives, we will validate it. I’m not going to hide any numbers. I’m not going to hide any data,” he said in that story.
On October 3, President Trump was telling Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló that people should be proud because the death count was only at 16. Hours after Trump left Puerto Rico, the government announced that the death count had increased to 34.
On October 5, the White House responded to Julio’s request for comment about Trump’s low death count comments.
— Julio Ricardo Varela (@julito77) October 5, 2017
On October 9, Sosa and the CPI published another story called, “Number of Deaths Related to María Will Continue to Increase in Puerto Rico.” This is from that story:
Pesquera, who was on the defensive about the questioning of the number of official deaths by the CPI last week and directly denied that there were accumulated corpses in island hospital morgues (as reported by this media outlet), was more open last Thursday, saying that he expects death toll to continue increasing. He admitted that there will possibly be many deaths linked to María which will remain unaccounted for because the cases the CDC will process depend on doctors’ making proper notes of the causes of death, as they will not be able to interview the relatives of all the deceased. From his conversations with the members of the Hospital Association this week, Pesquera believes that such annotations have not been done according to the CDC guidelines that have been distributed to them.
According to Pesquera, any citizen who believes that their relative died in circumstances related to María should visit the Forensic Sciences Institute located in the Río Piedras Medical Center to report their case so that it can be processed as such. The same must be done by the relatives of the 69 people listed last Tuesday in the official list of missing persons, given that the Forensic Sciences Institute and the Demographic Registrar’s staff that have been working in that agency will be looking for any matches that may exist between those names and the names on the death certificates that began to be processed at the registry headquarters last Thursday.
Soon enough, other bigger outlets began to report on the death count, which as of tonight, is still at 55. On October 11, Vox summarized reporting from different initial reports, including the CPI, NPR, and the LA Times, On October 27, Buzzfeed reported on 911 cremations listed as natural deaths. On October 27, CNN did its first investigation about the uncounted deaths.
Around this time, Pesquera was not finding time to talk with Latino USA or the CPI. On October 30, he finally spoke with Julio for Latino USA.
In that interview, he said this:
We have said many, many times. We will sit down with anyone and will go back and study whatever case that needs to be studied, and then will make a final determination. We’ve said that many, many times. But no one, no one, to this day has come forward and said, ‘alright, we want to meet, these are our body counts, these are the names, these are the circumstances, these are the places.’ Nothing. No one.
He also said that anyone who is questioning methods or reports from the government are employing “Oliver Stone theories.”
On October 17, in an episode of In The Thick, Frances Robles of the New York Times said that hospitals were having issues with recording deaths. Robles’ reporting from October 10 provided a dire picture of the health situation on the island.
On November 8, the government of Puerto Rico said that the island saw a 43% increase in deaths the first 10 days after Hurricane María:
…. [Officials] continued to emphasize the current official government explanation about why the Maria death toll is still at 55 people even though the entire country and most hospitals on the island were without electricity for more than a week and that the doctors who certify deaths in Puerto Rico have not recorded on death certificates if the medical causes of death were influenced in some way by the emergency that Maria created. When Pesquera was asked if the government should investigate the deaths that happened right after the hurricane given the data presented on Wednesday, and that Puerto Ricans have lived and keep living without basic services, he answered: “Why investigate?”
On November 10, Pesquera finally gave time to CBS News’ David Begnaud. In that interview, Pesquera insisted that he is confident that the government has acted correctly about the death count. He also said that he has yet to see any real information about uncounted deaths.
Then on November 16, the CPI reported about dozens of more hurricane-related deaths. That led to a Friday night statement by Pesquera that blamed everybody by the government.
Last night #PuertoRico‘s Dept of Public Safety shared a release in response to @cpipr story on uncounted deaths from #HurricaneMaría. I asked for an English version since @LatinoUSA is collaborating with CPI. This is what DPS sent me this morning. pic.twitter.com/IaRVtNcsVW
— Julio Ricardo Varela (@julito77) November 18, 2017
This Friday night statement happened just hours after governor Rosselló told Latino USA the following:
Well, this is a continuous effort. Of course, we welcome the information that the journalists stated. I think at the petition of the Secretary of the Department of Security, that information was not provided due to some issues. We’re willing to, of course, investigate everything. There really is no incentive to not say if a death was related or not related to the storm, We’ve been very open about this. We’ve even included deaths that are indirectly related to the storm. So any of that information is certainly welcomed, welcome that invitation, but in order for us to proceed, we need the information. We can’t just work on the basis of say, hey, there are 49 or there are 6 or there X number of bodies or people that haven’t been quantified, as having died because of the storm. We actually need a way to proceed because otherwise it’s just a number.
On November 20, CNNs survey of about half of funeral homes in Puerto Rico said that close to 500 deaths were related to the hurricane.
On November 21, CNN reported about Pesquera’s statement to its story:
“Currently, no funeral home has provided the government with specific information of a death case believed to be related to the event that they believe should be added to those already counted,” Pesquera’s statement says.
In addition, “Pesquera told CNN the government is open to revising its official number and would look into this and other cases. His office confirmed Monday’s statement was issued in response to CNN’s reporting.”
Here’s the truth: Pesquera has been saying this for close to two months now, and the blame game continues. There has never been a real formal investigation about all this, and it’s never the government’s fault.
It’s the storm.
It’s the process.
It’s the hospitals.
It’s the doctors.
It’s the funeral homes.
It’s the media.
But don’t place any blame on the government of Puerto Rico.
How many more stories and deaths need to get published before the government of Puerto Rico admits that it messed up from the very beginning and has done an incompetent job in communicating information?
This is not about “Oliver Stone theories.” This is about being proactive in seeking the truth.
Puerto Rico deserves the truth.
61 days later, we’re still waiting.