2 Years After Hurricane Maria Hit Puerto Rico, The Exact Death Toll Remains Unknown
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Two years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, we only have a rough idea of how many people died in and after the storm. That's partly why people protested earlier this year and forced the governor of Puerto Rico to resign. NPR's Adrian Florido reports on the pain that lingers long after Maria.
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: When Hurricane Maria knocked Puerto Rico's power out, Doroteo Diaz's oxygen machine stopped working. His daughter, Maria Diaz, drove him from one overwhelmed hospital to another. She said none could provide him the proper medical treatment.
MARIA DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: His skin started turning purple because he wasn't getting enough oxygen. Six weeks after the storm, he died. But his family's pain kept growing. Puerto Rico's government downplayed the hurricane death count. Diaz says it felt like her dad's death didn't matter. Then this summer, the worst of it in leaked group text messages between the governor and his inner circle. One of his advisers cracked a joke about the hurricane dead.
DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "I was so upset," Rivera said. "They mocked my pain." Like hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who'd endured the storm's aftermath, she'd had enough. She couldn't go herself, but she sent her husband and her brother to the massive protests that eventually forced the governor to resign.
DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: She said they went to represent the 4,645 people who died after the storm. That is not an exact count of the hurricane dead. It's one estimate that Harvard researchers published eight months after Maria, while the government's official count was stuck at 64.
Domingo Marques, a psychologist in Puerto Rico, was on the team of researchers.
DOMINGO MARQUES: We hope that people don't use that number, right? That's not a - a number is an estimate. We hope the people focus on the fact that it's not 64. And we need to find the answers.
FLORIDO: But in Puerto Rico, people latched on to that number - 4,645. It became an emblem. Puerto Ricans kept talking about that number even after researchers at the George Washington University, using official data, published a study estimating closer to 3,000 deaths, which the government adopted as its official death count.
MARQUES: People identified with our number. You know, in time, it just became equal to the real struggle that people were having. So it also became, like, a symbol for social change.
FLORIDO: During the protests against Governor Ricardo Rossello this summer, that number, 4,645, was everywhere - in graffiti, on T-shirts, on banners and signs, tattooed onto people's bodies. Current Governor Wanda Vasquez said last week that a more in-depth follow-up study to investigate individual deaths and reach a more precise count is not going to happen. She said the government doesn't have money or personnel for it.
Amid the lack of answers, people have found other ways to cope. Last year, friends and relatives of hurricane victims did something extraordinary. The day after the Harvard estimate was released, people started placing victims' shoes in the plaza outside of Puerto Rico's capital building. Over three days, they placed more than 3,000 pairs. Artist Gloribel Delgado was one of the organizers, and she recently took me to the storage unit where she's kept all those shoes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SECURITY GRILLE OPENING)
GLORIBEL DELGADO: We have here, I think, like, 300 bags. We have more than 3,000 shoes here. You know, it's like a symbolic cemetery of what the people did.
FLORIDO: The victims' relatives need to find peace, she said. And she hopes the memorial will help them find it.
Adrian Florido, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
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