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- 45th President of the United States
A new study released Tuesday found that Hurricane Maria killed nearly 3,000 people in Puerto Rico. Most of those who died after the storm were poor Puerto Ricans living in hard-hit municipalities. And I ask: How many more studies and cries for help does Congress need to do something?
For nearly a year now, boricuas like me have emphasized that more people than officially reported have died as a consequence of the Category 4 storm that ravaged the island on September 20, 2017. This was based on the dogged reporting of the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo in Puerto Rico and several major news outlets, as well as what people in the island were witnessing every day.
Several studies have further confirmed it in recent months: A Harvard University study released in May said the hurricane was likely responsible for 4,600 excess deaths between September 20 and until December 31, much more higher than the government's then-official death count of 64. Other studies say the death toll was over 1,400.
The George Washington statistical study, commissioned by the administration of Democratic Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, says there were 2,975 excess deaths between September 2017 and February 2018. Many of them are likely attributable to the storm, researchers concluded.
Earlier this summer, Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Rep. Bennie Thompson introduced a bill that would create an independent commission to investigate the federal response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, similar to the one established in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. A companion legislation was introduced by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren.
Despite all the evidence, our congressional representatives have not moved the needle on this issue. President Donald Trump hasn't even acknowledge the death toll at all.
Accurately reporting a natural disaster's death toll is important to measure its magnitude. That way, both the local and federal government could identify how to best address the emergency and long-term needs of boricuas. But the Rosselló administration massively failed in responding to the disaster and spent months refusing to acknowledge that the death toll was higher than the official figure. Meanwhile, Trump was more busy tweeting about NFL's national anthem controversy and feuding with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz than paying attention to the 3.4 million Puerto Ricans suffering at home.
In fact, his laissez faire attitude when he visited the island a few weeks after the storm shows he didn't really care. Remember how he was busy throwing paper towels and only touring one of the wealthiest towns in the island, without even meeting Puerto Ricans in low-income areas? At the time, the local government's official death toll was 16. Trump even said Hurricane Maria wasn't a "real catastrophe like Katrina" in 2005, where at least 1,833 people died.
Per Politico, the lack of tweets and the fact that he didn't consider the hurricane "a real catastrophe" signaled to the rest of the federal government that Puerto Rico shouldn't be helped with the same urgency than Texas after Hurricane Harvey and Florida after Hurricane Irma. The disparity in the response, which has been extensively reported, is disgraceful.
Both the local and federal governments were woefully unprepared for Maria — just look at how the Rosselló administration lost nearly a dozen of containers full of supplies or how the federal government gave a fraction of aid to Puerto Rico, compared to Texas and Florida.
Hurricane Maria changed the life in Puerto Rico, perhaps forever. The U.S. citizens living there spent months without water or electricity, facing food shortages, struggling with the lack of medical resources, losing their jobs, seeing their children go weeks without school, and fighting a mental health crisis which led to a 29% increase in the number of people who died by suicide.
Nothing will bring back our dead. They are gone, buried under flamboyanes and only kept alive in the memories of those who loved them. But what Puerto Ricans deserve is for there to be accountability. Congress should do what it hasn't done since the island was invaded and colonized in 1898: Put the needs of boricuas first and take action. Anything less than that is yet another stain on the history of this nation, which purports itself to be a beacon of freedom and justice in the world.
Our elected officials need to pass legislation that looks into the local and federal response to the storms and the subsequent death toll. No one knows what will happen when a storm like Maria hits Puerto Rico once again. (Because given how our planet's climate is changing, it will happen.) But by taking action, our lawmakers can make sure we don't lose thousands to preventable causes because the local and federal administrations are too busy playing political games.
It's likely that the rest of America, with its short-term memory for tragedy, will move on, but we boricuas will always mourn los muertos de María. They had names. They had full lives. And it's time they get justice.
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