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Puerto Rico's new Hurricane Maria death toll demands an inquiry into why the truth is only coming out now

The idea that only 64 people died in last year's hurricane was never believable. But the government refused to correct the record for 11 months.
Image: A man stands on a car on a  flooded street in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan
A man stands on a car on a flooded street in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico on on Sept. 25, 2017.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

What is stunning about Tuesday’s news that the official Hurricane Maria death count is no longer 64 dead but 2,975 lost lives is not just that it took 11 months for the Ricardo Rosselló administration to finally admit what so many Puerto Ricans already knew. It is that we still don't understand exactly why the government of Puerto Rico and the Trump administration allowed the count to stay so low for nearly a year after the storm, even when stories just eight days post-Maria were specifically refuting the official declarations.

Rosselló, in classic political doublespeak, both accepted the results and recommendations of the George Washington University study — for which his own government paid $300,000 — on Tuesday and indicated that there is still nothing definitive about the 2,975 deaths.

In just two sentences, Rosselló confirmed the very real possibility that the death count as a result of Hurricane María could be more or could be less than 2,975. An estimated official death count is, of course, just an estimate. But, as the one-year anniversary of the worst tragedy of modern Puerto Rico nears, the government of Puerto Rico does not even have a public list of the 2,975 victims with real names and real stories of how they perished on a island colony that suffered from the longest blackout in U.S. history and an inexcusable federal response.

We might know the names of a few of the victims, but we may never know all 2,975, unless the already debt-ridden government of Puerto Rico wants to pay GW hundreds of thousands of additional dollars to continue the study.

Rosselló, who at the Tuesday press conference admitted to his mistakes and said he was open to criticism, has ultimately failed in pushing for more accountability for those mistakes — even if one assumes they were in error.

While the Rosselló administration will, to this day, insist that it was publicly declaring the real possibility that the initial death count in late September would be much higher, statements from government officials at that time were unclear and confusing.

Take what Secretary of Health Rafael Rodríguez Mercado told the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) six days after Hurricane María hit — and what ended up being the last comment on the topic he was allowed to make.

“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," he said. "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,” he added.

Secretary of Public Safety Héctor Pesquera then took over as the government’s official spokesperson on this matter, and he openly refused to consider moving the official count, even though, at the time, it was clear that the death toll was much higher.

“I’m not saying it has not happened, I’m saying we can only certify what we know," Pesquera said in an October 2 story by the CPI. "When that information arrives, we will validate it. I’m not going to hide any numbers. I’m not going to hide any data.”

Nearly 11 months and two studies later, the government has finally "validated" a more accurate death toll.

And it wasn’t until November and December — after more stories of underreported deaths were made public — that the government of Puerto Rico even began to respond and understand that more work had to be done about this issue. On December 18, Rosselló called for a formal investigation. In early January, he called for a formal working group about the issue. In February, GW was brought in. Even though release of the study was delayed in May, it finally became public on Tuesday — and only then did the government of Puerto Rico bother acknowledging reality.

For Rosselló, though, the reputation damage was done in October, during President Trump’s half-day visit to Puerto Rico. Trump bragged about Puerto Rico’s low death count, and Rosselló’s response was “16 certified” deaths, even though it was clear that officials in his administration knew the death toll would increase. Hours after the president returned to D.C., the death count had already doubled to 34.

Ever since then, the government of Puerto Rico could not recover from its messaging or transparency problems — a point the university study acknowledged in its report: “Contradictory information and the release of unconfirmed information to the media, including death reports, demonstrated a lack of clearance protocol (or adherence to the protocol), personnel training and coordination of messages by government officials."

"These contradictions and apparent lack of coordination may have contributed to decreased credibility of the government,” it added.

Instead of being more transparent and truthful with Trump and the people of Puerto Rico, Rosselló — who insisted at the Tuesday press conference that he was never driven by political motives — held back in admitting the tragic reality through which his constituents lived. To countless Puerto Ricans, that was the ultimate insult.

As the rest of the world now begins to absorb exactly what it means that close to 3,000 Americans died in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria, calls for Congress to create a bipartisan 9/11-style commission need to intensify. Puerto Ricans cannot rely on the results of a study commissioned by its own government, nor on the words of politicians who have lost credibility.

Ironically, a bipartisan commission is a move Rosselló himself would support, as he told Latino Rebels in June at the Aspen Ideas Festival: “Anything that would give more clarity to the situation, of course we support it.”

Imagine if Rosselló led with that on Tuesday instead of trying to doublespeak his way out of a credibility problem his own administration created, and from which he will likely never recover.

Julio Ricardo Varela is co-host of the Webby-nominated In The Thick podcast and founder of, now part of Futuro Media.