Back in February, I returned to Puerto Rico, my home for many years, and the birthplace of my son and sister. For decades, I had resisted going back because I knew that decades of development had transformed the island from paradise to an overcrowded tourist destination. But after Hurricane Maria struck on November 20, 2017, the pull to travel to the island to see with my own eyes the devastation, and to help in whatever way I could either physically or financially, drew me back.
The scene on the ground was grimmer than I anticipated. Large swaths of Puerto Rico’s interior, an estimated 50 percent, were still without power. And throughout the island, residents struggled to make the best of Puerto Rico’s staggering $73 billion debt which forced it into declaring history’s largest municipal bankruptcy.
During the five months that have passed since my visit, the news from Puerto Rico paints a picture of greater devastation than even the most pessimistic could have drawn. Originally, analysts put Maria’s official death toll at about 65, although insiders projected that the true number was likely closer to 1,000.
But in a recently published study issued by The New England Journal of Medicine and written in conjunction with Harvard University scholars, researchers found that Maria may have caused more than 4,645 deaths. As a result of Maria, basic services remained out long after the storm had passed, and high out-migration began. Those leaving Puerto Rico are predominantly young, healthy adults; children, elderly and very poor are left behind.
Researchers feared that even the revised 4,645 deaths may be an undercount. Among other biases built into their survey, they couldn’t accurately measure any single-person households whose occupant had died. Tragically, about one-third of the hurricane-related deaths occurred because patients’ life-sustaining medical services were cut off. People are still dying today from the storm that hit land months ago.
Electricity in many areas is still spotty, as Puerto Rico enters the 2018 hurricane season, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts will bring a 75 percent chance of normal or above-average hurricane activity. As well, some residents remain without health care and have only Federal Emergency Management Agency-distributed tarps for shelter.
Even though Maria is a natural disaster of cataclysmic proportions and has wrought as much death and destruction as Hurricane Katrina and could, if the death count continues to mount, reach the 1900 Galveston hurricane’s 8,000-dead level, Puerto Rico’s continuously unfolding human tragedy is but a blip on the media’s news cycle.
After NEJM released its shocking report that reflected a 70 times larger death total in Puerto Rico’s hurricane-related deaths than the originally cited data, the dominant media story concerned comedian Roseanne Barr’s tweet about Valerie Jarrett, former advisor to President Obama, and the subsequent cancelation of Barr’s television show.
A prominent CBS News correspondent told watchdog Media Matters of his multiple but ultimately failed efforts to get his superiors to give Puerto Rico more reporting time. CBS News’ David Begnaud said that the lack of hurricane coverage is consistent in general with the overall absence of news about Puerto Rico. Begnaud said that even though Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy declaration warranted extensive coverage, the story got “15 seconds” on air.
Congress has failed Puerto Rico, too. In the months since Hurricane Maria struck, Congress has obsessed about illegal immigrant amnesties and border security issues, both of which involve foreign nationals’ well-being. But Congress’ concerns don’t include Puerto Ricans’ suffering even though islanders are United States citizens.