It’s been more than eight months since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. People are still using tarps for roofs. Officials are worried another storm could wipe out power on the island again. And a new estimate of the death toll suggests thousands more died than we knew. CNN correspondent Leyla Santiago and senior investigative reporter John Sutter are seeing it unfold firsthand, documenting the devastation and digging on the death toll. I asked them to give me and others on the mainland a window into what it’s really been like over there. Our Slack conversation, condensed and lightly edited for clarity, is below.
Harmeet Kaur: Did you know immediately when you got to Puerto Rico that Maria was going to be as devastating as it was? Did you expect to spend months covering the disaster?
John Sutter: I arrived in Puerto Rico a few weeks after the storm. And I was absolutely floored by the level of devastation. After that much time, I expected to find some level of normalcy. I didn’t.
People were sleeping in homes without roofs, drinking water from a federal Superfund site because they didn’t have working taps. Power was a SUPER luxury. Power lines were draped like spaghetti in the trees. Some roads were impassible. It was a mess. It felt like the hurricane had hit the day before and that time had frozen.
Several months later, it still feels like that in some parts of the island.
Leyla Santiago: Absolutely not. I was on the island for Hurricane Irma, and stayed for an entire month after María. I never expected it to be so bad, despite the government warnings.
The moment I woke up the morning of Sept. 20 and heard that ominous hum as María approached, I knew this was different. I stepped outside, and the winds were incredible. It was hard to stay standing.
When we flew out of San Juan several days after the hurricane and I got an aerial view of the island, I realized this wasn’t just different – it was devastating. María would change the island and its people.
Kaur: Has it been frustrating to see other stories instead dominate much of the news cycle? Have you felt like the story hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves?
Sutter: I do find that frustrating. I’m not sure people on the mainland realize how severe the crisis has been – and continues to be.
In March, I was reporting a story on people in a remote town, Maunabo, where people were dying because they lacked basic services like electricity. Breathing machines weren’t working. People couldn’t get medical help. There was just this cloud of despair that hung over the place.
I worried that our readers might not get it – or might not care, that they’d be focused on a Trump tweet. PR is part of the United States – but it can feel like living on another planet down here. The experiences people are having, and that we’re reporting, don’t translate for many Americans.
I also worry the crisis here will be forgotten because it will stop shocking people – that they’ll feel like they already know that Puerto Rico is suffering and they’d rather tune it out. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen. I do think CNN has done an amazing job at continuing to put people/resources on this story.
Santiago: Of course, I want this story to get more air time. It deserves it. These are US citizens on the island, and people are still dying due to lack of power.
This is also the island I call home. So for me, this is personal. I want to make sure everyone knows what is, and is not, happening here (especially in areas outside of San Juan). That said, I am very proud of the work coming from CNN teams on this island.
Kaur: Why does it feel like Americans on the mainland don’t care?
Sutter: I do think Americans care. Friends and colleagues are always asking me about what’s happening here – there’s been an outpouring of donations and such. But it’s way too easy to treat Puerto Rico like “that island over there.” To not view the disaster here the same way you’d look at hurricane recovery in Florida.
I’m also frustrated by the ways in which American politics ignores Puerto Rico. People here are US citizens, as Leyla mentioned, but they can’t vote for the president, and they don’t have voting representatives in Congress. We’ve designed a system that sticks this place in a sort of unfair limbo.
Santiago: I think people do care. I get messages and tweets all the time saying so.
I also think they forget. It’s been more than 8 months now. It certainly sounds like enough time to recover. And, I think most people assume that is what has happened. Progress has been made. Power has been restored for more than 99% of customers (according to the power authority). But, that still leaves more than 11,000 US citizens in the dark.
I talked to the mayor of Corozal today. He told me 20-25% of his residents still have tarps or some sort of temporary roof over their homes. I don’t think people realize how many people are still struggling to live their daily lives with just running water and power – basic things EIGHT months after María. I can’t tell you how many people on the island still tell me they feel forgotten or abandoned.
Kaur: You both visited funeral homes around Puerto Rico and found months ago that the hurricane death toll was likely much higher than the official count. A study that published this week estimated that more than 4,600 people died. Did that surprise you at all?
Sutter: I wasn’t all that surprised, sadly.
In our November investigation, we surveyed 112 funeral homes – about half those on the island here. And funeral home directors/staff told us they’d identified 499 probable hurricane deaths. That’s certainly not 4,600. But it’s far higher than the current official death toll from Puerto Rico officials: 64.
I don’t think we’ll ever know the exact toll. Harvard admits that, too. But it’s far higher than has been officially recognized. That matters. Because these are real people with real families who passed away. They deserve to be remembered. Their families also are eligible for certain types of FEMA aid if their deaths are classified as “official.”
Experts keep telling us that death toll figures drive attention/aid/government response after hurricanes. If the public had known this 4,600 figure sooner – who knows what would be different now.
Santiago: I don’t find those numbers surprising. BUT we also have to be careful with the numbers from the study.
I think most people think Harvard found 4,600 cases of Hurricane María related deaths. That’s not what happened here. They visited about 100 barrios, interviewed about 10,000 people. Based on the trends identified they believe 4,600 is a conservative estimate.
The doctors I’ve talked to tell me lack of power is absolutely taking a toll on healthcare. We did our investigation in November. When we checked in with funeral homes again February, I was appalled to hear people were STILL dying because of lack of power. I believe the number of indirect deaths is much higher than what is currently counted.
And the death toll is important. If we don’t know who died, where and how, we have no way of possibly preventing it in the future.
Kaur: Is it hard to get data?
Sutter: Second that! Very hard. That’s partly why we surveyed so many funeral homes – at a time when communications systems were mostly down. It’s partly why Harvard did that MASSIVE survey. And it’s why CNN is suing PR’s Demographic Registry (with CPI, an investigative journalism organization here in Puerto Rico) for death records.
The Puerto Rican government did commission George Washington University to do a review of the death toll. That review is still forthcoming, and has been delayed. But the government here has been very reluctant to share documents and records about what’s happened. And I think it’s fair to say that the Maria death toll has become a highly sensitive and politically charged issue.
Kaur: Leyla, you were born in Puerto Rico. You spent summers on the island and even got married there. Has your connection to Puerto Rico made this assignment more challenging? Has it changed how you approach the story? How has it changed you?
Santiago: How much time do we have?
I have always been proud to call this home. This island is my happy place :) When you see so much devastation, destruction and desperation … of course it affects you. I cried quite a bit in the weeks after María. I cried when I watched a cruise ship filled with Puerto Ricans with specials needs leaving the island. I cried when I found my family for the first time (nine days after María). I cried when I saw the blue tarps flying in last week.
I understand it is my job as a journalist, and a Puerto Rican, to give the people of this island a voice. This island molded me into the person I am today. I owe it to them.
Kaur: John, you covered climate change for a long time. Are there connections you’re drawing between that and everything that’s unfolded in Puerto Rico?
Sutter: It’s one of the reasons I wanted to cover this storm.
The standard disclaimer is that it’s tricky to link any one storm/flood/etc. to climate change (Scientists are actually getting better at this). But we do know that this storm looks a lot like climate change. We know seas are rising, which influences the height of storm surge. We know oceans are warming. We know more water in the atmosphere can create more-intense rains. And we know that people are messing with all those systems – fundamentally making them more dangerous – because we’ve refused or been unable to stop burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests.
I’m very troubled by the new moral matrix this creates: In a world where so many storms/weather events are supercharged by climate change – by us – who is to blame for the catastrophe that follows? It’s getting much harder to look at any weather events as fully “natural,” because they’re occurring in a climate system we’ve altered.
Maybe that all sounds wonky. But climate change is all about risk. And we’re making the planet riskier because we continue to burn fossil fuels at such an astounding rate.
Kaur: What is the one thing you each hear from people over and over?
Sutter: “No es fácil,” or “It’s not easy.”
My sense is that many people here are disinclined to complain about what they’re going through. They’re just trying to survive. Helping each other. Doing what they can. Some are resigned to a new normal – without power, etc. In those places people always use that phrase. I take it as code for a sense of hopelessness.
Santiago: I called 8 mayors across the island. When I asked them what the biggest issue would be if another storm headed toward the island, the answer was unanimous: the power grid.
Among the people you’ll often hear, “No es fácil.” It means, “It’s not easy.” It’s how they describe life after María. Many feel forgotten. Many feel hopeless. Many feel they’re not treated like US citizens.
Kaur: Is the situation there hopeless? Will Puerto Rico ever be the same?
Santiago: I think in some ways Puerto Rico is forever changed. The way people live their lives and the way they respond to disaster will never be the same. But I also think Puerto Rico will one day become a resilient island again. It will take a lot of time. It will take a lot of help. It will take a lot of money.
Sutter: It’s not hopeless, but it feels it at times.
The island is hemorrhaging people and has been for years; it has an extremely low birthrate; child poverty is sky-high; and the debt crisis has in many ways crippled the economy, forcing a range of austerity measures. Plus Maria.
Some people here have lost hope, at least temporarily. I certainly hope it’s not permanent – because Puerto Rico truly is a place of incredible beauty and strength and potential.