Does Puerto Rico undercount its Hurricane death toll (and overestimate property damage)? - Julio Ricardo Varela, Futuro Media, Latino USA - Tuesday 1/30

Does Puerto Rico undercount its Hurricane death toll (and overestimate property damage)?
Julio Ricardo Varela, Futuro Media, Latino USA
Tuesday 1/30


In some ways, Hurricane Maria, the historically destructive storm that hit Puerto Rico last September 20, changed almost everything on the island.  But it some ways it changed nothing.

It changed lives in the most direct way, snuffing out roughly 1000 of them.  But it didn’t change the way the Puerto Rican government counted deaths, by looking at death certificates that specifically cited the storm as the cause of death.  

2 months after the hurricane, the official count was just 62 people killed.  To anyone who had seen the wreckage left behind the storm, the number was hard to believe.  

It turned out it also wasn’t hard to refute.  

Our guest today, Julio Ricardo Varela of Futuro Media, In The Thick and and a team from the Puerto Rican Center for Investigative Reporting went to the officials who counted — not death certificates — but dead bodies.  Their figures showed that in the first 40 days after Hurricane Maria, 985 more people had died on Puerto Rico than in the same period the year before.

The miscount was an example of how the storm had not changed some things, like including it appears the value the Puerto Rican government placed on the lives of their citizens.  

Not much.

Perhaps that’s because the market value of the dead, measured in terms of relief aid, is also not much.  They’re gone; can’t help them.

Property damage is another thing.  And here, the Puerto Rican Government’s estimate of $94.4 Billion may range on the outer limits of the high side.  Not as high as the death count was low, but more than anyone expects Puerto Rico to get in rebuilding aid.  In fact, most regard the mid 90 billion dollar number to be just a tactical estimate, out there to pull the real aid money number a little bit higher.

Gaming funding requests is another part of Puerto Rico unchanged by the emergency, and there’s no sign it’s working.  In fact, the net effect seems to be the opposite, the unrealistic damage number undermines what little credibility local political leaders may have had.

The help that has gone from “the mainland” to the island has mostly been in kind…like the more than a billion dollars worth of infrastructure repair being led by the Army Corps of Engineers…or the people, everything from police officers, utility repair crews,  to building inspectors seconded to Puerto Rico by sympathetic donors like New York City, NY State and Florida.  

Congress passed a $1 Billion aid program for the Puerto Rican government, but FEMA and the Treasury Department won’t release it, in part because it openly mistrusts Gov. John Rosello’s estimates – not just of what his territory needs, but how much money it still has in the till.

Meanwhile, 4 months after the storm, most estimates say, 40% of the population is still without reliable power, and the darkness is dangerous.  To the causes of storm-related deaths add murders, which are off to a terrible start in 2018.  

No doctor would tie the bodies of young men turning up on the streets of cities like Bayamon or Carolina to Hurricane Maria on a death certificate.  But in the towns where the latest drug gang turf war is raging, a lot of people make the connection.  No power and fewer police enable the killers.



As Digital Media Director for Futuro Media, Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela works with the team to promote the show’s episodes and expand its social reach. He is a frequent contributor to the show and the editor of the show’s official site, He also co-hosts In The Thick with Maria Hinojosa. In 2011, Julio founded, one of the top U.S. Latino media sites in the world. Previously, he was digital producer for Al Jazeera America’s “The Stream” and his work has been featured in many global outlets, including the Guardian, ESPN, the New York Times, Quartz, Le Monde, WGBH, WNYC, Face the Nation, MSNBC, Fusion, Univision and Telemundo. He has made numerous national TV appearances for Latino USA and Futuro Media.

In 2015, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists honored Julio with its inaugural DALE (pronounced like Pitbull would say it) Award, given to “given to an individual or company that steps up and goes above and beyond to ensure Latinos are fairly and accurately represented.” A native of Puerto Rico, Julio spent his childhood between San Juan and the Bronx. He was also a contributing reporter at The Boston Globe. Julio graduated cum laude from Harvard College.



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