[Editorial] ‘Ojos que no ven…corazones que sienten’
Editor’s note: The following editorial first appeared in the May 31-June 6, 2018, issue of Caribbean Business.
In the early days after a Wind Beast named Maria leveled Puerto Rico—destroying homes, bridges, roads and the entire power grid, knocking such critical facilities as hospitals offline—we all came to grips that ours would resemble lives during wartime. That much was confirmed by Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, who during an exclusive interview two weeks into the new abnormal told this newspaper the devastation he had seen in his forays across Puerto Rico brought him to the conclusion that the devastation in Puerto Rico was the worse he had seen—anywhere. “This surpasses all of it; because of the Cat 5 winds, the hurricane leveled the whole island,” Gen. Buchanan said.
The challenges in the field made tacitly clear the need for a National Incident Commander, a person who could have immediate command and control over both civilian and Title 10 military personnel. It was only after a National Incident Commander—Gen. Russell Honoré—took over in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina that recovery efforts commenced to deliver.
In Puerto Rico, it is unquestionable that the failure to name a National Incident Commander had a negative impact on many aspects of the recovery efforts—among them the rise of preventable deaths, which are now being confirmed by several independent entities.
At the time, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló insisted he was in full command. Sadly, the first casualty, on his watch, was the truth. We do not see Rosselló as untruthful or prone to lying; this newspaper believes him to be an honest man—but those working desperately to handle various aspects of the recovery focused on spin, rather than the hard truth, as a guiding principle in this catastrophe.
The saying: “Ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente,”—Spanish version of “out of sight, out of mind”—might be appropriate in the arena of romance, but self-deception is a foolhardy defense mechanism in the realm of disaster management. In that sense, the governor’s spin doctors have harmed the recovery process.
One early incident of self-evident truths neglected by the government took place when NCM News reported a large landslide in a mountain ward and that a military officer feared that up to 200 people could have lost their lives. NCM reported these estimates would have been accurate unless residents had sought refuge prior to the storm. The news outlet later confirmed residents who had their homes obliterated by boulders managed to escape just prior to the freight of earth.
When the landslide was first reported, members of the Rosselló administration—then-Chief of Staff William Villafañe and Public Affairs Secretary Ramón Rosario—denied the event’s occurrence until they were confronted with the hard facts found through field reports.
That same tendency to wax optimism on utter devastation was seen time and again—in the early goings when Puerto Rico government officials seemed proud of the fact that only 64 people died as a direct result of the hurricane, and when the Rosselló administration’s representatives on Capitol Hill told staffers it was not a good idea to insist on knowing exactly how many people died in the aftermath of Maria. This newspaper does not agree with that stance.
Importantly, a recent study conducted by Harvard University: “Mortality in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria,” published in the New England Journal of Medicine, estimates the number of excess deaths related to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico is more than 70 times the official estimate of 64. Harvard University with the help of graduate students from Universidad Carlos Albizu and the Ponce Health Sciences University conducted a household-based survey of some 3,229 randomly selected homes, coming to conclusion that 4,645 excess deaths occurred during the period from Sept. 20, 2017 and Dec. 31, 2017.
During a recent news conference on a Hurricane Preparedness Summit held by the government, Rosselló said he welcomed the Harvard study’s findings because it would help provide a roadmap for preparedness.
As the new hurricane season gets underway, there is a pressing need to prepare for the possibility of the onslaught of another storm, so we do not repeat the same mistakes committed after the passing of Hurricane Maria. Ostrich culture—heads hidden in the sand—will not get the job done. We need a hard look at the facts: Not to place blame; to find solutions, to really storm harden, to learn from our mistakes. That should be our true north as we try mightily to move on from devastation that has marked us all forever.