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Puerto Rico Orders Recount of Hurricane Maria Death Toll After Investigation Suggests 1,000+ Died

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In the face of mounting evidence of a vast undercount by the government, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló has called for a recount of the death toll from Hurricane Maria. The government’s official death toll stands at 64. But several investigations have revealed that nearly 1,000 more people died. The Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico examined the 40-day period after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico compared to that same time period last year and found at least 985 additional people died. This week, The New York Times and other outlets published statistics from the Puerto Rican government that show the death toll may be more than 1,000. We speak with Omaya Sosa, the co-founder of Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, who has led coverage of the deaths after the storm.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Puerto Rico, where the island’s governor said Monday he is launching an official recount and review of the death count from Hurricane Maria. The storm devastated the island on September 20th. And since then, the government has listed the official death toll at 64.

But several investigations have calculated that perhaps nearly a thousand more people died. The Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico examined the 40-day period after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and compared it to that same time period last year, finding at least 985 additional people died. A CNN survey of funeral home directors in Puerto Rico found that they had tracked at least 499 additional deaths in the first month after the storm that were attributable to Hurricane Maria. This week, The New York Times and other outlets published statistics from the Puerto Rican government that show the death toll may be more than a thousand.

In a statement released Monday, the island’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, referred to the reports, saying the media, quote, “used the data provided by the Puerto Rico Demographic Registry, but the Government needs to [investigate] if the increase of the deaths is related directly or indirectly with Hurricane Maria.” In the face of mounting evidence of a vast undercount by the government, Governor Rosselló added, quote, “We always expected that the number of hurricane-related deaths would increase as we received more factual information—not hearsay—and this review will ensure we are correctly counting everybody.”

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico reported this week that, close to three months since the storm, 45 people are still listed as missing, and efforts by Puerto Rico’s police to locate them have been minimal or almost nonexistent.

Meanwhile, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson are visiting the island today, where at least a third of residents are still without power and hundreds remain in shelters. The visit follows a proposal Monday night by Republican House lawmakers for an $81 billion disaster aid package for recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as states hit by wildfires—well more than President Trump has asked for.

For more, we go to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where we’re joined by Omaya Sosa, the co-founder of Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, where she’s a reporter, her latest article headlined “Delayed and Without Resources: Puerto Rico’s Police Did Little to Investigate Missing Persons After Hurricane Maria.”

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Omaya Sosa. We had on the Center for Investigative Journalism, your center, early on after the hurricane, where you were alleging that there were around a thousand deaths. This is now months later. At the time, President Trump was touting the fact that the death level was very low. Now the governor of Puerto Rico says he’s calling for a recount. Tell us the evidence you have that the death toll may well be around a thousand.

OMAYA SOSA: First of all, hi, Amy. Good morning. Good morning, Juan. Thanks so much for having me with you.

You know, early on, since week number one or two, we already had a lot of evidence that the deaths were skyrocketing, and they were much higher than the 16 death count the government maintained as the official death count, death toll, for like two weeks. That didn’t move at all, any day, for two weeks. So, certainly, there was very little interest of the government of being proactive and finding out what was really going on. The morgues at the hospitals were full in Puerto Rico, which is not normal. They were saying—the hospitals were saying this was the fact, that this was going on. And the government just didn’t want to get into the issue and count what was going on. Seriously, this went on until the day President Trump came here and used that number to say, “You know what? This is not a real catastrophe. This is not like Katrina.” And that same day, hours after, the number doubled—official number.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I want to turn to those comments you’re referred to, Donald Trump made in October during his visit to Puerto Rico, after the hurricane hit the island. Throughout the trip, he repeatedly praised his administration’s response to the storm, comparing it to George W. Bush’s handling of Katrina in 2005. This is what the president said.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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—and what is your—what is your death count as of this moment? Seventeen?

GOV. RICARDO ROSSELLÓ: Sixteen certified.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Omaya Sosa, your response, especially given the fact that here you had the governor of the island, as well as the president of the United States, both apparently not in contact with what’s actually—what was actually happening on the ground at that time?

OMAYA SOSA: You know what? That was a very sad moment. Everybody here knew that was not real. We had been publishing already for one week some of our stories and our investigations. And the government knew that was not the real number. They’ve said over and over again, repeatedly, still now that they’re doing—they’re saying they’re going to do the recount, that they had not received information. They don’t have to receive information. They have to go look for the information, go out and investigate. And they just haven’t done that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, and I wanted to ask you, in terms of the efforts of people on the ground to try to get a clearer sense, one of the things that’s been raised, that the hospitals were never given any kind of protocols by the government about how to deal with deaths that were coming in at that time. Can you talk about the medical community, what they were told?

OMAYA SOSA: They were just sent an email, maybe two or three emails, with the CDC guidelines of how to manage—or recommendations on how to manage death certificates under these natural disasters, like hurricanes, for example. But those were, you know, never distributed. They are not a mandate. The hospital said that that’s not their legal responsibility. And as we all know, there’s a lot of liability in writing, putting things in writing, without a law or an executive order mandating that. So, certainly, no—a month ago, there were only, I think, three death certificates that said the word “hurricane.” So, there was no clear instruction. This was just to the administrators of the hospital. And I’ve spoken to many doctors that have said that they have never received these guidelines, they never received an order. And when the governor has wanted to make something happen, he just stands up and clearly says he’s putting out an executive order or some kind of a mandate. And that hasn’t happened. Today is the first time—yesterday, I’m sorry, was the first time that he said something clearly about this issue—three month after, in fact.

AMY GOODMAN: In October, Democracy Now! traveled to Puerto Rico to cover the aftermath of the hurricane. I spoke with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who raised the issue of the number of bodies cremated after the storm.

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: It has been reported that 911 deaths have been—or bodies have been cremated since Maria. Why is that happening?

AMY GOODMAN: Nine hundred eleven?

MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ: Nine hundred and eleven. Why is that happening? We have no idea. You know, usually when you cremate people at that rate, it’s because you’re trying to ensure that an outbreak of whatever disease doesn’t come out. But whatever it is, we should know about it. And again, I don’t understand why these things are not being openly talked about.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. Omaya Sosa, can you respond to this, the number of cremations?

OMAYA SOSA: Well, the number of cremations is certainly high. It’s been put a little out of context, because it wasn’t in the stories that came out. They were stories in the states. They didn’t compare it to months before. But certainly it’s high. Usually, it’s like 400 to 500 cremations, monthly cremations. And now it was about 900, so it almost doubled. The person in charge, Security Secretary Héctor Pesquera, has said that this is the will of the people. But I’ve spoken to a lot of people that say we have no option, that the bodies of my family member, for example, were already decomposed. So, you know, it’s not that I asked for or I wished for a cremation. I just had no other option. So, certainly, it all has to do with the situation. I cannot say there is a willful—a will to just cover up something, but certainly, now to investigate, when you’ve cremated so many bodies, is very difficult.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Omaya, you’ve also reported about the spike in the number of people missing subsequent to the hurricane, and the failure of police officials to even look for these folks. Could you talk about that, as well?

OMAYA SOSA: Well, this is another very sad situation that happened and was just erased, forgotten by everybody. The week after the hurricane, the missing persons in Puerto Rico tripled. And as we just found out, the police kind of noticed three weeks after the fact. So, as you should know, when there’s a missing person, the first 48 hours are critical to finding this person. And the police couldn’t react, because of the situation. Also, the police was going through the same problems everybody in Puerto Rico was going through: no water nor electricity, no communications. But it’s still the security force. You know, they should have known before.

And now, three months after, you still have 45 persons from that period that remain missing. And we are noticing a profile of a lot of people with mental health problems. So, they got disoriented. Family members are just super upset that they have not had any help from the police at all. So, we published that on Sunday. We still haven’t seen a reaction. But the police chief in Puerto Rico, Michelle Fraley, said that, you know, she’s open to work on the situation. It’s still the same problem. It’s so little—too little, too late.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you comment on, Omaya Sosa, the significance of the heads of HUD, the Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson, as well as the head of the Department of Homeland Security coming to Puerto Rico today, what you think they need to know?

OMAYA SOSA: I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you very well.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you comment on the heads of the homeland security and Housing and Urban Development coming to Puerto Rico today? What do you think they need to know?

OMAYA SOSA: There’s a lot of work for them, if they’re willing to do it. First of all, the Homeland Security Department is the one that has been asked by the Democratic delegation to investigate this issue with the deaths and the death count. The governor has said they will—he wants this issue to be investigated, and he wants a recount to be done. But, as we published today, the persons that—the people that will be in charge of that investigation are the same people that have been in charge for the past three months and that have been stubbornly saying that this is it, you know, this is the correct number, and they don’t have to do anything else. So, certainly, that raises a lot of suspicion from our side and from people’s side that don’t trust the government in this issue, in this investigation. So I think the homeland security acting secretary should, you know, take some kind of control and make some serious questions.

In terms of the housing secretary, that’s one of the most serious issues we have right now. Two hundred and fifty thousand people have lost their homes. There’s a lot of people without a place to stay still, people at shelters sleeping. So, certainly, we have a housing—a serious housing crisis that must be attended to.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m wondering if you could talk about the congressional response to the crisis in Puerto Rico. Obviously, there’s a bill now being introduced for $81 billion, but that’s for—not just for Puerto Rico, that’s for Texas, for Florida, for the victims of the wildfires in California, when the island’s governor had requested over $90 billion just for the island. And also, how the tax bill, that will be voted on in the next day or so, is going to affect the island of Puerto Rico, because there are claims that some of the provisions would actually spur more companies to leave the island of Puerto Rico who now have manufacturing facilities there?

OMAYA SOSA: It’s very frustrating. I mean, it seems like all the doors are being shut on Puerto Rico when the help is needed the most. We really don’t understand why this tax bill cannot make the exception with Puerto Rico, when we’re going through such a dire crisis, that everybody has seen on TV for the past three months. More than half of the people here still don’t have electricity, and they want to tax the few companies that are left?

The biggest crisis right now, besides the humane crisis, humanitarian crisis, and the electricity, is the economic situation, the economic development. The businesses just cannot run without electricity, and many have just shut down. A lot of people don’t have any options at all. And now, the few options that have decided to stay and, you know, fight the fight will see their taxes increase by 20 percent. You know, it’s really horrible. It’s terrible.

And in terms of the package, it’s been very slow. And what can come out from that $81 billion package, what can be the final number that will be given to Puerto Rico, that will be determinant to what can happen, how we can bounce back a little from this situation or not.

AMY GOODMAN: Omaya Sosa, we want to thank you so much for being with us, co-founder of Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism. We’ll link to your latest piece, headlined “Delayed and Without Resources: Puerto Rico’s Police Did Little to Investigate Missing Persons After Hurricane Maria.” And a special thanks to where you are broadcasting from, WIPR, public television in San Juan, which, like many PBS stations, also plays Democracy Now! daily.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll speak with Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. He just completed a two-week tour around the United States, says the tax bill that the Republicans and Democrats in Congress are poised to vote on could devastate people in this country. Stay with us.

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