2,975 DEAD AND COUNTING.
A new George Washington University report on the deaths in Puerto Rico resulting from Hurricane Maria concluded that at least 2,975 people died due to direct or indirect causes deriving from the storm. Most of us in the island know the actual number of deaths linked to the storm will never be known.
Over coffee one afternoon, a friend who has become an anonymous hero directly helping hurricane victims, alerted me about a grave problem in the town of Yabucoa that demanded the authorities’ urgent attention.
A town in the southeastern part of Puerto Rico, Yabucoa was Hurricane Maria’s ground zero. The storm made landfall there, its residents bearing the brunt of the disaster. They witnessed how the storm devastated everything that crossed its path. Three tornadoes ensued the category 5 phenomenon, leveling what little could have been left standing around.
Maribel Rivera, the town’s public relations officer, stoically explained to me the appalling situation that their residents have faced since September 20th.
I then asked Ms. Rivera about the problem that had triggered my curiosity and motivated my call in the first place: the death and suicide statistics in Yabucoa after the storm.
The deaths in Yabucoa in the aftermath of the storm exceeded the government’s initial official tally of 64 persons. Since the hurricane, the municipal cemetery’s statistics reflect that 41 persons more have died than the casualties for the same period the year before.
The municipality confirmed that from September 20th, 2017 to January 2018, the municipal cemetery documented 129 burials. Twenty-nine more than the 100 documented for the same period the year before.
Among these, there are several suicide victims.
Hurricane Maria triggered a significant increase in suicides in Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rico Department of Health’s statistics reveal that every 29 hours a person commits suicide. Two hundred of the myriad of unclaimed bodies that remain stored in refrigerated containers at the forensics’ institute are those of persons that took their own lives after the storm.
Yabucoa, a town of 36,000, documented six suicide fatalities since September 20th. Two missing persons are deemed to have taken their lives as well, for a total of eight.
The lack of electricity seems to have been a major force affecting its residents’ mental health. Six months after the storm, about half of the town still lacked power. It took 9 months to restore power to the entire town.
Six months after the storm, on March 12, 2018, Hector Caraballo killed himself. On the day of his death, he had expressed that he was unable to bear another day without electricity. Later that day, power was restored to his home.
Surviving Hurricane Maria was a traumatic experience for everyone. However, it has taken a heavier toll on the young whose quality of life depends mostly on modern comforts and the ability to keep themselves communicated and entertained. Many teenagers became severely depressed and too many became desperate enough as to try to take their own lives.
Since January, there have been 46 documented suicide attempts in Yabucoa. Three succeeded in their goal. Most of the suicide attempts since January 2018 involve teenagers. The Ramon Quiñones school alone documented 14 suicide attempts among its students.
In May 2018 the increment in suicide attempts prompted the town to engage in an aggressive suicide prevention campaign, “Evita el Suicidio” (“Prevent Suicide”). The central government deployed mental health professionals to deal with the emotional emergency among Yabucoa’s residents.
No suicide prevention campaign can reap optimal results until the people of Yabucoa get back to normal living conditions. Otherwise, they will find it hard to deal with the emotional debris that the storm left behind. Every broken streetlight, every road destroyed inevitably brings back the sense of gloom that they need to overcome.
According to Ms. Rivera, the town has not received sufficient assistance to rebuild. Its infrastructure lags behind in the recovery efforts. Ninety-five percent of the municipal facilities were destroyed.
Almost a year after the storm, 400 families still live under a blue tarp.
FEMA has yet to refund the municipality for the recovery work, delaying the latter’s financial capacity to continue its reconstruction effort. Diggers and trucks used to clear roads destroyed the pavement throughout the town, severely curtailing the residents’ capacity to commute.
The Yabucoa municipal authorities recognize that but for the arduous work and commitment from charitable entities like All Hands and Hearts who have helped in the reconstruction of over 500 homes, the town would not have been able to show signs of recovery. Committed to staying for another year to continue the rebuilding effort, that entity has restored hope in the lives of many.
The plethora of aid of private organizations – from churches such as the Latter-Day Saints to charitable entities like Caritas – have proved to be the lifeline for thousands of destitute Yabucoa residents who lost everything in the hurricane.
In light of the scandals plaguing the federal and local authorities’ mishandling of aid destined for the hurricane’s victims, Yabucoa’s experience demonstrates that disaster aid is best channeled through those that take a hands-on approach to their commitment to help. People and organizations that will ensure the aid will effectively get to those that need it the most. Those whose results proved their commitment to carry out the assistance and recovery mission they set out to accomplish.
A concept that FEMA failed to live up to in Puerto Rico. Even though that is precisely the agency’s raison d’être.
It is crucial for the authorities at this juncture to take a closer look at the desolate conditions that still afflict Yabucoa. Both state and federal governments must tackle its dire situation with the sense of urgency that the accelerated deterioration of the residents’ mental health calls for.
Failure to do so may continue to pile up hurricane victims that will never be formally attributed to it.