Puerto Rico Faces Pressure Over Disputed Death Toll
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We've been here learning about what the island has been through during Hurricane Maria and since then. We've been seeing signs of progress and hearing about issues that remain unresolved. And one of those issues that's been very much on people's minds this week is actually a number. How many people actually died, either directly because of the hurricane or conditions thereafter?
That's because Harvard researchers released a study estimating that more than 4,000 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria - a shocking number when you compare it to the government's official tally, 64. This much bigger number is just an estimate, but it's become a focal point for a lot of anger and sadness.
That became very clear to us during a tour of one of the FEMA emergency supply warehouses earlier this week. Puerto Rico's secretary of public safety, Hector Pesquera, faced a barrage of questions from journalists about the discrepancy between the Harvard number and the official death toll. I caught up with him at the end of the press conference.
MARTIN: The question of the death toll, the official number, is obviously a very sensitive issue. Can you just describe why is it?
HECTOR PESQUERA: It is the most frustrating thing for me because I'm always looking for the root cause. What is it that causes this event to escalate? We came with what the legal framework is for us to certify death. That's all we could do. We cannot speculate. We cannot on a hunch say, well, we think it. No. We can only go that.
MARTIN: I'm joined once again by NPR's Adrian Florido. Adrian, it sounds like the government here is feeling the pressure to release more information.
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Yeah, it has been feeling that pressure for a long time. In February, the government actually commissioned its own study from researchers at George Washington University to come up with a more precise count. That study has been delayed. It's still in the works. But after a lot of the attention this week, the government yesterday did start to release more statistics, more data - death count for 2017 - not complete information, but some.
MARTIN: I mean, I think that one of the things that encapsulates what we're talking about here - kind of the level of feeling that there still is around this - is that yesterday, you took a walk to the steps of the Capitol building here, which was the scene of a demonstration. Tell us a little bit about it.
FLORIDO: Yeah. It was something between a protest and a memorial. People were going to set out pairs of shoes to represent the hundreds, possibly thousands of people believed to be among the uncounted dead. And one of the people I met there in front of the Capitol was Luis Vazquez. I went up to him because he was barefoot, and I realized that he'd taken off his own shoes and placed them among the rest that had already been set out. It turned out that his father's body was found in his house two weeks after the storm.
LUIS VAZQUEZ: He wasn't communicating with us because there was - he had no power and his cell phone because there was no electricity.
FLORIDO: Vazquez said that his dad is just one of many stories like this in Puerto Rico.
VAZQUEZ: I think that there are a lot of shoes that are missing here.
FLORIDO: Ani Sanchez brought a pair of her old sneakers.
ANI SANCHEZ: If you were here, and you saw your neighbors die because they couldn't go down the stairs because they were too old and just people - old people left behind. We have to count them. We have to pay respect, let them know that they were not forgotten.
FLORIDO: One thing Sanchez told me is that few people in Puerto Rico actually think that number - 4,645 - is a true count. But the number's become a symbol of the government's failures to protect people, of the suspicions people have that the government tried to suppress the death count. One of the organizers of this demonstration, Yarima Gonzalez (ph), told me there's also something else.
YARIMA GONZALEZ: Four thousand six hundred forty five - it's not only a number. It's not just a number. They are people, and this is the representation of them. To me, that is something really strong and powerful.
FLORIDO: This demonstration was only supposed to be in place yesterday afternoon, but people have kept coming to add more shoes. And when I went back earlier today, there were almost 2,000 pairs. Jose Viera (ph) was numbering them with a black Sharpie
JOSE VIERA: (Speaking in Spanish).
FLORIDO: Viera said that here in Puerto Rico, there is this very strong culture of grieving over the bodies of the dead, of finding comfort in that as the surviving family. But here, a lot of families didn't have that chance because they had to bury their family members quickly or cremate them. And that's why he thinks that this demonstration continues to grow after more than a day. People are coming to add their shoes because they want to heal collectively.
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