BY NATHAN DUKE and TRONE DOWD
In late May, a Harvard University study—which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine—estimated that the number of Puerto Ricans who died as a result of Hurricane Maria last fall was vastly undercounted.
The official death toll announced in December by Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Safety was 64 persons. However, the Harvard University study estimated that as many as 4,645 people—or 73 times the official estimate—perished as a result of the hurricane, which struck the island in September. At the Puerto Rican capitol building in San Juan, thousands of pairs of shoes have been left on its steps to protest the official number that has been released regarding the hurricane’s death toll.
Earlier this year, Queens elected officials traveled to Puerto Rico to help with recovery efforts. At that time, U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing) called relief funding for Puerto Rico “woefully inadequate” after touring the island.
In Queens and on the island, Puerto Rican families continue to struggle as a result of the storm’s devastation. In Puerto Rico, thousands of residents still lack electricity, making the blackout the longest in U.S. history, while hospitals are still in shortage of necessary supplies.
In the borough, residents with family members from Puerto Rico are still dealing with the storm’s aftermath. Sandra Ramirez, a Forest Hills resident, said that her 83-year-old father, Santos Ramirez, has been living in her apartment since Oct. 8.
“My father is a senior citizen, a widower,” she said. “When the hurricane hit, he didn’t have any nearby family. He was relying on his neighbors to share food.”
After the hurricane, Ramirez said that she contacted Meng’s office to help get her father to the United States. At the time, she noted that flights from Puerto Rico to the United States cost thousands of dollars. Once he arrived, healthcare became her top priority.
“He has a heart condition, is diabetic and has multiple health conditions,” Ramirez said of her father. “So I wondered what to do about medical coverage for him. He didn’t want to leave the island, but there was no electricity. He had no other option than to come here.”
Ramirez said that her father relies on Social Security and qualifies for Medicare, but not Medicaid. However, Ramirez said that she was able to obtain health services for her father. But she added that other family members had a much more challenging situation following the storm.
“My father was one of the more fortunate people,” she said. “He lives close to the airport and suffered little damage to the house. He lost electricity, but had running water a week after the hurricane hit. I have an aunt whose power comes on and off. She’s sickly and has all sorts of medical conditions. I have an aunt who lost her whole house. Most of my cousins have moved to Florida, but there are many Puerto Ricans who don’t have any family members here in the States and they need assistance. There are people who live in the countryside who still have no electricity at all. My father told me that lines to get gas were five to six hours long. People stood in line at the supermarket starting at 4 a.m. and the supplies often ran out. It’s like Puerto Rico has been forgotten. It’s sad. With the condition the island is in, there’s nothing to go back to. I don’t think things will be back to normal for a very long time.”
Ramirez said that her father was “disgusted” with the United States’ response.
“As a Puerto Rican, you’re born as an American, but you don’t get the same treatment,” she said. “The people from the island have been forgotten. [U.S. leaders] are not doing their due diligence. We’re eight months into this, and it’s nowhere near what it should be.”
Councilman I. Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans) has close ties to Puerto Rico. He told the Queens Tribune’s sister paper, the PRESS of Southeast Queens, in November that he has family members living on the island. He said that he spent many summers as a child visiting them. The councilman has kept close tabs on the devastation following Hurricane Maria. In November, Miller was one of three Queens council members who spent several days assisting people on the island.
In an interview this week, Miller said that the recent news of Puerto Rico’s death toll’s being much higher than initially reported was not surprising.
“For folks who have been on the ground like myself, there was a reality that things weren’t getting done,” Miller said. “Everyone on the island knew that there were many more deaths than what was documented. They just weren’t counting people who were struggling every day in the midst of the struggles following Maria.”
He said that many older people on the island, including his 60-year-old uncle, are former police officers, government workers and other civil servants from the United States who moved back to the island for their retirement. Many of these people are now struggling to get back on their feet.
“It’s frustrating to know that we have resources for these American citizens and we’re not delivering,” he said. “We helped Europe and Japan and all of the places, and yet we can’t reinvest in Puerto Rico.”
He compared Puerto Rico’s plight to Hurricane Katrina, during which President George W. Bush’s administration was accused of mishandling its response. Miller said that he has plans to travel back to Puerto Rico to assist with the recovery.
On Wednesday, Meng and U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-Ridgewood) took part in a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., to bring attention to the mortality numbers released in Harvard University’s study.
“Nine months after Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria, the island continues to struggle with rebuilding,” Meng said. “Puerto Ricans continue to need help and assistance, and we cannot abandon our fellow Americans on the island. As a member of the [House’s] Appropriations Committee, I remain committed to doing everything I can to ensure that Puerto Rico receives the aid it needs, and I continue to support initiatives to help our brothers and sisters on the island get back on their feet.”
Meng noted that she has called for displaced students from Puerto Rico to receive in-state tuition rates at New York public colleges and universities, and urged FEMA to extend traditional housing assistance for hurricane survivors. In January, she brought Omar Miguel Nieves Delgado, a displaced Puerto Rican resident, to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address to highlight the need for additional recovery funding.