Puerto Rico's Humanitarian Crisis Takes on New Urgency With Alarming Death Counts

Blanca Matos takes care of her sick mother in October in Utuado, Puerto Rico. Photo: Getty
Blanca Matos takes care of her sick mother in October in Utuado, Puerto Rico. Photo: Getty

The U.S. government says 62 people in Puerto Rico have officially died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Not many people are buying that given the island’s lack of electricity, healthcare access, and clean drinking water.


To account for this discrepancy, media outlets have been making an extra effort to uncover the true extent of death on the island. Their conclusion? That 62 should be closer to 1,000.

Publications like Latino USA and The New York Times released their own analyses on Thursday and Friday, respectively, after looking at how mortality data in September and October from the Demographic Registry of Puerto Rico compares to 2015 and 2016. The Times found that 1,052 more people died than usual. The numbers are especially high on the days immediately following September 20, when Maria hit the U.S. territory.

Cities like Manatí, Jayuya, and Aguadilla saw some of the highest death rates.

In September, the island saw a major spike in deaths from sepsis, an extreme body response to infection that attacks tissue, which the Times attributes to delayed medical treatment or poor conditions in homes and hospitals. Puerto Rico has been dealing with a range of health care crises since the hurricane, and getting people proper, timely treatment has been a challenge.

The leading causes of death were diabetes and Alzheimer’s. As Times reporter Frances Robles noted on Twitter, insulin is supposed to be refrigerated.


According to the Food and Drug Administration, the drug can lose its effectiveness when exposed to extreme temperatures. And Puerto Rico was in the 90s after the storm.

The Puerto Rican government can keep blaming this rise on coincidence, but advocates, lawyers, and physicians are taking matters into their own hands.


A delegation of more than 30 people in Washington, D.C., on Thursday presented a petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to address the human rights issues on the island post-Maria. Among the requests? That the commission halt fiscal austerity measures the U.S. has imposed on Puerto Rico due to its debt crisis, as well as the repeal of a federal law—PROMESA—passed to aid with the crisis.

The commission likely won’t respond for another few days, but Commission President Margarette May Macaulay did note the commission would send a formal request for the United States to conduct an on-site visit to Puerto Rico as soon as possible next year.


This came after the commission heard testimony after testimony about life on the island. More than two months since the hurricane hit the island, things should be getting back to normal, right? However, many of these U.S. citizens are still struggling to find normalcy and the island isn’t even meeting 70 percent of its energy output.

Those who testified talked about coal ash contamination in the South, which they’ve received no update about from the government. They don’t know for sure whether a five-story-high coal ash pile has leaked into their water supply— but they do know the government did nothing to prevent that. The pile was left uncovered during Hurricane Maria. They discussed the exacerbated poverty their pueblos are seeing after the hurricane, as well as the ongoing inability from local hospitals to help their sick relatives.


“We have a problem in Puerto Rico, and it’s one of discrimination,” said Annette Martínez Orabona, director of the Caribbean Institute for Human Rights, in Spanish, her voice breaking. “It’s about discrimination that stems from our colonial relationship because we haven’t been given the opportunity to practice our right to self-determine, and that should remain clear.”


The commission heard what both sides had to say, but Puerto Rican officials didn’t send a representative to attend the meeting alongside other U.S. government reps. Maybe they’re too busy trying to update the official death toll?

Macauley was obviously curious herself about this, asking why. Interim Permanent Representative at the U.S. Mission to the Organization of American States Kevin Sullivan, the only U.S. official to speak during the hearing, wouldn’t elaborate why not a single Puerto Rican official could attend this human rights hearing. He simply said they reached out to ask Puerto Rican officials for input and received a letter, which wasn’t read.


“It is very unfortunate that these things are happening, which we call natural disasters, but which are, in fact, man-made because we’ve destroyed our world. And we continue to do so,” said Macaulay, as she closed out the meeting. “It would be good for us to wake up and smell the roses instead of smelling chemicals.”

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.


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Here’s how bankruptcy attorneys look at this:

PROMESA and Puerto Rico’s Pathways to Solvency

Facing a self-declared “death spiral” of public debt, the Governor of Puerto Rico announced a debt moratorium earlier this year, halting payments to bondholders. A series of missed payments followed, including a landmark default on constitutionally guaranteed bonds in July. At the same time, Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA or “promise” in Spanish), which combines a debt restructuring system with federal controls over the island’s finances. But enacting PROMESA is only a first step. Coordination and engagement with creditors is the next step—and an even more complicated one—in Puerto Rico’s long journey towards solvency and fiscal stability.

They remove the word people from the deal. It’s up to creditors, bondholders and hedge funders to not be assholes. Maybe PR should declare independence. Does Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and Warren Buffett have armies? Buffett holds about $1 billion of PR bonds. The thing about Buffett is he comes off like a nice Midwestern guy. He’s really not and a rabid population control dude.