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Puerto Ricans knew the official Hurricane Maria death toll was fake. We saw too many dead to believe it.

Residents of and journalists from the island have been saying that many more people died than the government would admit.
Image: Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico
A man walks past destroyed homes in Catano, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 21, 2017.Hector Retamal / AFP - Getty Images file

We knew.

When the government of Puerto Rico kept saying that the official death toll, two weeks after Hurricane María, was only 16 people, we knew that the figure was not even close to being real.

Ever since the Category 4 hurricane destroyed much of the island's infrastructure on September 20, 2017, Puerto Ricans were telling the stories of the deaths of friends and neighbors to one another.

When journalists were getting texts from people in the administration of Governor Ricardo Rosselló who said that the aftermath of the hurricane felt like a nuclear bomb had struck the island and that the situation was worse than what everyone thought, we knew the death toll wasn't accurate.

When funeral directors started telling people that they were burying way more bodies than usual, or when our family members told us about their neighbors dying in still-darkened rooms, or being buried outside their homes, we knew that the official death toll was much higher than the 64 people the government had eventually admitted to.

Puerto Ricans are not suddenly shocked by the Harvard study published this week estimating that a total of 4,645 excess deaths occurred between September 20 through December 31, 2017.

When we heard the stories of people having no refrigeration for their insulin, that dialysis machines weren’t operational or that hospitals were still in the dark but had people on life support, we knew that it wasn't some small counting error.

So Puerto Ricans are not suddenly shocked by the Harvard study published this week estimating that a total of 4,645 excess deaths occurred between September 20 through December 31, 2017, because the proof was already there months ago.

But almost nobody else wanted to look for it.

A lot should be written about journalist (and friend) Omaya Sosa and Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism as being one exception: In a September 28, 2017 story, they showed that the island’s official death count was being underreported, and there was enough evidence from Puerto Ricans to prove it. (Her reporting was so exceptional that we began to work together shortly thereafter.)

Trump’s visit only served to highlight the late response and federal neglect to Puerto Rico’s catastrophe.

When I first read Omaya’s report, it had confirmed other first hand accounts from people on the island that I was getting. People were indeed dying at rates faster than the government was saying, but when there was still no power and often no way for government officials to communicate with local towns and mayors, it was not then too premature to conclude that nobody really could grasp how dire the situation was.

But at least one person in the Puerto Rican government was able to come to the same conclusions as the people of Puerto Rico, about a week after María had hit. Secretary of Health Rafael Rodríguez Mercado explained why the government’s official death toll at the time was still very low.

“We were informed that there are people who have buried their relatives because they are in places where help has yet to arrive,” Rodríguez Mercado told the CPI. “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.”

That was one of the last times Rodríguez Mercado would be the public face of the Puerto Rican government when it came to talking about deaths and hurricanes. After that, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Public Safety Héctor Pesquera — a former FBI head in Miami — became the go-to guy on the death toll, and the person who said that anyone questioning how the government collected death statistics had “Oliver Stone theories.” But given Puerto Rico’s spotty history of data gathering, asking the questions to Pesquera were valid.

Governor of Puerto Rico Ricardo Rossello attends a news conference days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, in San Juan, on Sept. 30, 2017.Carlos Barria / Reuters

And when Governor Rosselló had the golden opportunity to tell President Trump on October 3 that maybe he shouldn’t be bragging about how low the death count in Puerto Rico was when compared to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he simply repeated that it was only 16 people.

A few hours after Trump left Puerto Rico on Air Force One, though, the government of Puerto Rico suddenly announced that the death toll had more than doubled. Trump’s visit only served to highlight the late response and federal neglect to Puerto Rico’s catastrophe — other factors that played into an island that was dying right in front of the eyes of fellow Americans.

Since that Trump visit, and the sudden change in the death toll after he left, there began a more focused push by local Puerto Rican journalists, mainland-based Puerto Rican journalists and other national outlets to find out about the death toll. And, in my experience, that’s when we began to see the government of Puerto Rico seemingly deliberately frustrating journalists on that quest. They have not given us straight answers to very basic questions, or they've just avoided answering questions all together even as they are working with George Washington University to potentially revise the figures.

Still, we knew what the truth was.

But we Puerto Ricans knew, despite their delay tactics. We knew all along that something was up.

We knew when researchers Alexis R. Santos-Lozada and Jeffrey T. Howard published a study on November 21, saying that deaths related to Hurricane María may be at least 10 times higher than the government’s official count of 55 at the time.

We heard more and more stories about people losing their family members due to health issues caused by the aftereffects of the hurricane, like the ongoing loss of power, and they started becoming more and more public.

We knew when new data from the government of Puerto Rico (published on December 7 by the CPI, Latino USA and Latino Rebels) showed excess deaths of close to 1,000 the first 45 days after María hit. The next day, the New York Times did its own analysis about the excess deaths and came to similar conclusions.

We knew what the truth was when Rosselló and Pesquera would suddenly become less available to answer questions, or would promise more studies. We knew when the government of Puerto Rico stopped providing 2017 mortality statistics to news outlets. (A lawsuit by the CPI and CNN is essentially asking public officials to release public data.)

While Puerto Ricans kept asking questions, the island’s political class kept delaying the inevitable reckoning.

Instead, they assigned the work of determining the truth to researchers who won’t publish a report until the summer. They blamed the breakdown in recordings of deaths on failed federal guidelines, they tell us that some people die every day, and they try to discredit the journalists and citizens who keep asking for answers.

But we Puerto Ricans knew, despite their delay tactics. We knew all along that something was up.

More people probably died in Puerto Rico after Hurricane María than people died in 9/11.More people likely died in Puerto Rico after Hurricane María than U.S. service members were killed in Iraq.More people seemingly died in Puerto Rico after Hurricane María than died in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And the government of Puerto Rico has spent nearly nine months trying to avoid speaking that truth out loud, either to its own people or the journalists who could tell them. But though we should demand that our government tell us the truth, we didn't need them to do so to know what it was. The question now is whether it matters to anyone other than Puerto Ricans that the government lied, and what we are going to do about it.

Julio Ricardo Varela is co-host of the 2017 Webby-nominated In The Thick podcast and senior digital editor of, the website for NPR’s Latino USA, a Peabody-winning show anchored by Maria Hinojosa and produced by The Futuro Media Group. He is also the founder of