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Tuesday 20 November 2018
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Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics Powerless in Collecting Death Toll Data

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A hurricane is about to batter this caribbean beach hut. The seas are raging and the skies show the tropical storm as the power of nature is demonstrated. Waves crash on the shorePuerto Rico was left powerless in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Wet with flood water, scattered with shingles and glass, and ravaged. Now potential signs of political unrest might be brewing.

At least for the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS), as it has not been included in the task force assembled to collect statistics on the disaster’s death toll.

The problem is that in Puerto Rico, the PRIS is an apolitical and autonomous agency dedicated to collecting and monitoring the collection of accurate data. Now, the agency’s autonomy is at risk.

Following a legislative decision lead by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló which would incorporate PRIS under the Department of Economic Development and Commerce, two distinct political thought factions emerged.

Those who approved the plan claim, perhaps accurately, that merging the two agencies would save dollar amounts in the millions. The opposition states that the loss of impartiality might be too large of a risk.

Mario Marazzi, the Executive Director of PRIS, informed the government that the merger of some data collection processes would be acceptable so long as the sanctity of the data and autonomy of PRIS is not breached.

So far, no one has offered consolation that this issue will not surface. Nor has anyone posited a strategy for how an unbiased agency could share statistics with an implicitly biased one.

In fact, American thinkers have critically lambasted the idea. Even 15 members of the U.S. Congress have written a letter voicing concern and explaining the “need for public, independent and unbiased data.”

The guise of cost-cutting might be represented in dimmer light when considering the fact that Gov. Rosselló replaced four of seven board members of PRIS last July.

The courts took eight months to overturn this decision on the basis that the governor had overreached his authority. Because of appeals, though, the final result of this case is still pending.

Meanwhile, the official death count for Hurricane Maria is only 64 people. Though any loss of life is tragic, this number is dwarfed by those being reported by investigative journalists and the United States new media syndicate. Those numbers are reaching upwards of 1,000 individuals.

Why the discrepancy?

The numbers are being reported by Puerto Rico’s administration and since PRIS has been excluded from data collection, those are the numbers. Where do they come from?

The police department. Certainly valid data, as police will report deaths directly caused by the hurricane. Marazzi took issue with the completeness of this data, however.

“For example, if hurricane winds knocked a tree down, killing a person — that’s hurricane related,” he said.

More data certainly is needed to form a complete understanding of Maria’s impact.

In the United States, institutions exist to survey specific aspects of a natural disaster or epidemic. For example, the Urgent Care Association of America reports 3 million visits per week to urgent care centers nationwide. If a natural disaster occurred tomorrow, that number would be different. More importantly, it would almost certainly be reliable.

Likewise, over 15 million U.S. homes rely on well water. If groundwater contamination became an issue near one of those homes, the owner could be notified and a statistic of the number of homes affected would be public knowledge.

So, what are some likely causes of death related to the hurricane? Looking back, contamination could be a big issue. The streets were flooded with water that contained pathogens. When everything dried out, germs had already spread widely. The problem is, flu viruses, and most others, can only remain on hard surfaces for 48 hours. So, collecting data on hurricane-related flu deaths today is borderline impossible.

The same can be said for finding data on deaths relating to the following:

    • Lack of medical treatment
    • Lack of electricity
    • Drowning
    • Unreported death
    • Missings persons

The list could go on for a long time. That said, the data just isn’t there. Though some might surface over time, PRIS won’t be the agency gathering it. The Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics won’t be gathering statistics for hurricane-related deaths in Puerto Rico.

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