Puerto Rico lacked disaster planning, communications strategy, hurricane study found


Janet Collazo still remembers the day she got a call from a family in Moca, a small town near the western coast of Puerto Rico, weeks after Hurricane Maria pummeled the island.

“They would tell me, ‘he only has two hours of oxygen left. What can I do?’,” said Collazo, executive director of the Defensoría de las Personas con Impedimentos (DPI), a government agency in charge of protecting the rights of the island’s disabled. “We were literally talking about life and death… People died because they had no respirators. That’s what hurts my soul the most.”

Collazo is among the many islanders who are not surprised by the new, official death toll 2,975, which the Puerto Rican government revised on Tuesday following the release of a new independent study from George Washington University’s Milken Institute of Public Health. The numbers makes Hurricane Maria the deadliest natural disaster for the U.S. in 100 years.

But while most initial headlines focused on the study’s number of deaths, the report outlined recommendations based on the flaws that the hurricane’s aftermath exposed, such as a lack of preparation for a massive natural disaster and a series of missteps in keeping the public informed after the hurricane’s aftermath.

The GWU study found that doctors did not use existing Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines to appropriately count the number of deaths that were related to the storm’s aftermath. The doctors they interviewed said they were not aware of those guidelines. The study recommended that the Department of Public Health implement training for medical personnel ahead of the next natural disaster.

The report found that island officials had no “written, updated agency crisis and emergency risk communication plans in place” prior to the storm. In addition, the lack of clear, effective communications to the public “decreased the perceived transparency and credibility of the Government of Puerto Rico.”

Cecille Blondet, the director of Espacios Abiertos, a nonprofit that promotes government transparency and accountability, recalls the disconnect between the government’s accounts and what Puerto Ricans like her saw on the ground.

“Especially between November and December, we were very concerned. The numbers from the government were not adding up with what we were all seeing in the streets or with what news outlets were reporting,” said Blondet.

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