Making headlines in a disaster is easy; keeping public attention two weeks later is much harder.
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, some officials have pointed to the low death toll in Puerto Rico as grounds for celebration.
Yet the devastation goes far beyond those numbers, and hospital administrators and communicators are working to keep the stakes high and get federal aid expedited to the island.
It doesn’t help when the administration itself works to limit information about the island’s struggles:
As of Wednesday, half of Puerto Ricans had access to drinking water and 5 percent of the island had electricity, according to statistics published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on its Web page documenting the federal response to Hurricane Maria.
By Thursday morning, both of those key metrics were no longer on the Web page.
Domingo Cruz, a San Jorge administrator, spoke about fuel shortages in another report by The Washington Post:
“Nothing can function without power,” Cruz said. “Outside right now, we have a tank that holds 4,000 gallons of diesel. The hospital’s two combined building use 1,500 gallons every day.”
NBC News reported that doctors remain in constant triage:
“The hospitals are still in crisis,” said Dr. Ubaldo Santiago, who directs emergency services at several San Juan hospitals and clinics. “Many are still working on generators. It’s tough, and the doctors are giving their maximum.”
And San Juan’s hospitals are faring far better than those in less populated areas, Santiago said: “What you are seeing around here, it’s heaven compared to some people in the inland, in the mountains.”
The shooting spree in Las Vegas has understandably grabbed U.S. journalists’ attention this week, but health hazards in Puerto Rico persist.
A major focus for continued coverage is the rising death toll. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, in an op-ed for CNN, wrote about the term “preventable deaths” as he issued a dire warning about worsening conditions in Puerto Rico.
In all my years of attending these meetings, I’ve only heard the term on a few rare occasions. Each time, it’s caused the room to go stone silent. Yet in Puerto Rico I have heard the term several times a day, every day, as local doctors, mayors and citizens worry that many of the most vulnerable citizens are at risk, mostly due to a failure of a timely, coordinated response by the authorities, both federal and territorial.
For want of insulin, blood pressure medications and antibiotics, things widely available at any neighborhood pharmacy on the US mainland, people in Puerto Rico will die—are dying—preventable deaths.
The government has another term for such fatalities.
The government calls them “indirect deaths” – those who died after the violent storm: heart attack victims, people on kidney dialysis machines that failed, people who fell off roofs inspecting storm damage, and people killed in auto accidents on highways made more treacherous from Maria’s destruction.
The death toll, even as it rises, does not adequately reflect the severity of the situation.
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Earlier this week, the governor of Puerto Rico raised the official fatality figure for Hurricane Maria from 16 people to 34. But with unofficial reports like the one from Arecibo, that number is expected to rise.
Faulty communication is one reason the official death toll has remained low.
“Sadly, the island is so badly damaged that there is no ability to communicate—no way to know the number of people who may have been killed in the storm itself with houses coming down, debris,” [says] Stephen E. Flynn, the founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University.
To combat the lack of data, health officials are being blunt.
“What do you think? There has to have been deaths,” said Dr. Rafael Rodríguez-Mercado, Puerto Rico’s health secretary. “I can’t give you a number, but we have to be conscious and realistic. To say no would be a lie.
Some coverage has been given to individual stories.
Gupta wrote for CNN:
We found more of the hurricane’s walking wounded […] like Jobita Cumaquita, battling both cancer and diabetes, but more concerned with how her 22-year-old granddaughter, Estefani, will manage without her father. A couple of days before the storm hit, he went to the hospital for an elective visit to address his blood sugar. He had made similar visits many times before, Estefani said, and he had always come home healthy shortly after treatment. But in the immediate aftermath of Maria, when they went to check on him, they were shocked to discover that he had died days before.
NPR’s continuing coverage told stories beat by beat as an embedded reporter followed a fast-response team from hospital to hospital.
The takeaway for communicators? After the first few stories, journalists seek a new angle, or else they can’t continue their coverage.