Recovery remains slow in hurricane-battered Puerto Rico

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It’s been three months since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, and recovery has been far from expeditious.

While the island is more than 2,500 miles from The Land of 10,000 Lakes, the Puerto Rican diaspora in Minnesota feels uncertainty over what Governor Ricardo Rosselló has long defended as an “official death toll” -- 64 people.

“We knew that was an abstraction because what we were seeing in real time was a tremendous amount of suffering and disaster,” said Dr. Eduardo Medina, a Park Nicollet Health Partners family doctor. “It’s a massive endeavor, we know what we saw on the ground, we were there. Now we’re three months out and my family just got electricity yesterday.”

Dr. Medina was among a group of Puerto Rican Minnesotans who traveled to the island for a volunteer medical relief effort in October. The medical practitioner was among those who were not surprised Governor Rosselló Monday ordered a review and recount of Hurricane Maria’s death toll.

Hurricane Maria left 3.4 million American citizens on the island without electricity, clean water and distressed many hospitals, homebound patients and the disabled -- not to mention the island’s economic debt crisis and its commonwealth relationship with the Federal government -- complications that seem to have only strained recovery efforts.

“There is such a disparity between what you hear from the people who are experiencing this on a day-to-day basis and what the reports say,” said Migdalia Loyola, a member of the Coalition of Boricuas in Minnesota. “The idea that humanity is not being counted is really felt deeply."

Loyola grew up in Puerto Rico and many of her friends and family still live on the island, including her elderly parents.

Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism and the New York Times both estimate more than 1,050 people have died on the island from September through October. The analyses were compared with the average number of deaths for the same period in both 2015 and 2016, with a difference of more than 500 lives.

“There’s just been a lot of suffering, and the facts that the deaths that have been occurred and unaccounted for and have been denied really speaks to me about a lack of humanity,” Loyola nodded.

The sluggish and unreasonable conditions in Puerto Rico continue to prompt a mass exodus.

The Coalition of Boricuas in Minnesota says at least 50 families have already settled in Minnesota since September 20th, but an exact headcount has been difficult to quantify.

Across the board so far, more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have reportedly fled to the mainland

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico’s power grid is reportedly operating at only 70 percent capacity while parts of the island still remain without power. In light of these things, an accurate death toll is important for disaster planning and to measure of how well people are protected.

As he prepared to leave his office Tuesday, Dr. Medina contemplated the obligation he feels to make the island’s recovery a priority.

"This is something that couldn’t have been prevented, and it’s the responsibility of a government to take care of their people," he said. “If we compare and contrast what happened in Houston and what happened in Miami, there was a quick and swift effective response, and that just didn’t happen in PR. And we have to wonder why that is.”