Protesters Demand Official Examination of Hurricane Maria Death Toll in Puerto Rico

Demonstrators at a rally outside the United Nations in Manhattan on Saturday. Protesters were demanding an audit of the official death toll from Hurricane Maria, which Puerto Rico set at 64 last year. Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

It was not until after watching her home in Aguada, P.R., fill with water and the roofs blow off houses during Hurricane Maria that Suzette Sanchez began noticing those around her dying.

There was the family friend whose heart surgery had to be postponed when the hospital closed. There was the volunteer who contracted leptospirosis, a bacterial infection often caused by contact with rat urine, while cleaning.

“When the government said only 64 people died, I knew it wasn’t true because I had many friends that lost a loved one after the storm,” Ms. Sanchez said.

Days after a new study from researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health estimated that the death toll from Hurricane Maria may be as high as 4,645 people, mainly because of delayed medical care, hundreds of protesters gathered on Saturday in the shadow of the United Nations to demand that the international organization audit the number of casualties.

The Puerto Rican government is reviewing its official death toll from the storm, which it said in December was 64.

“If it were 5,000 kittens, there would be outrage,” said Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of Uprose, a Latino organization in Brooklyn. “If it was 5,000 dogs, there would be outrage. If it was 5,000 blonde-haired, blue-eyed women, there would be outrage.”

The protest was organized by the Collective Action for Puerto Rico, a coalition of faith-based and labor organizations. Protesters held signs saying “Puerto Rican lives matter” and “If you are not angry you are not paying attention.”

They took off their shoes as a symbol of the people who died as a result of the storm but who were not immediately counted, and called for more attention to be paid to the hurricane’s aftermath in the form of more assistance for people still struggling on the island as hurricane season begins.

“Sisters and brothers in this country forget that the people of Puerto Rico are our fellow Americans,” said Linda Sarsour, who was one of the lead organizers of the Women’s March in Washington. “They deserve to be treated just like any American in any part of this country.”

United Nations officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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SOURCE: New York Times, Jeffery C. Mays

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