The idea that only 64 people died in last year’s hurricane was never believable. But the government refused to correct the record for 11 months.
What is stunning about Tuesday’s news that the official Hurricane Maria death count is no longer 64 dead but 2,975 lost lives is not just that it took 11 months for the Ricardo Rosselló administration to finally admit what so many Puerto Ricans already knew. It is that we still don’t understand exactly why the government of Puerto Rico and the Trump administration allowed the count to stay so low for nearly a year after the storm, even when stories just eight days post-Maria were specifically refuting the official declarations.
Rosselló, in classic political doublespeak, both accepted the results and recommendations of the George Washington University study — for which his own government paid $300,000 — on Tuesday and indicated that there is still nothing definitive about the 2,975 deaths.
In just two sentences, Rosselló confirmed the very real possibility that the death count as a result of Hurricane María could be more or could be less than 2,975. An estimated official death count is, of course, just an estimate. But, as the one-year anniversary of the worst tragedy of modern Puerto Rico nears, the government of Puerto Rico does not even have a public list of the 2,975 victims with real names and real stories of how they perished on a island colony that suffered from the longest blackout in U.S. history and an inexcusable federal response.
We might know the names of a few of the victims, but we may never know all 2,975, unless the already debt-ridden government of Puerto Rico wants to pay GW hundreds of thousands of additional dollars to continue the study.
Rosselló, who at the Tuesday press conference admitted to his mistakes and said he was open to criticism, has ultimately failed in pushing for more accountability for those mistakes — even if one assumes they were in error.
Imagine if Rosselló led with that on Tuesday instead of trying to doublespeak his way out of a credibility problem his own administration created, and from which he will likely never recover.
Julio Ricardo Varela is co-host of the Webby-nominated In The Thick podcast and founder of LatinoRebels.com, now part of Futuro Media.