Almost three weeks since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the storm’s official death toll has risen to 45, Puerto Rico governor Richard Rosselló said on Tuesday. In a worrying sign of the dangers of contaminated floodwaters, the latest two reported deaths were caused by leptospirosis, a bacterial disease transmitted by the urine of infected animals.
The previous four reported fatalities had been what officials call “indirect deaths,” caused by conditions arising from the storm, not the storm itself. More of these kinds of deaths, from disease, car accidents, and other misfortunes, are likely to be reported in the coming days.
Probably the biggest danger for Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents now is the persistent lack of power on the island. Maria fully knocked out its already fragile electrical grid, and as of Tuesday, only about 16 percent of the island had electricity, and only about 60 percent had running water.
Most at risk are patients in Puerto Rico’s overwhelmed, often overheated hospitals. A New York Times report on Tuesday detailed how the persistent lack of electricity has put many seriously ill patients in danger, especially those who rely on regular dialysis.
“Because of the electricity situation, a lot of people died, and are still dying,” one woman told the Times. “You can’t get sick now.”
In the aftermath of the hurricane, the official reported death toll held firm at 16 for many days. It was a figure President Trump took weird pride in during his visit to the island, but one that seemed destined to rise considering the wide scope of the storm’s devastation and as dire reports trickled in from remote parts of the island.
Even now, amid the ongoing medical crisis, medical officials say the true death toll will end up being much higher than is currently reported.
Héctor M. Pesquera, secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety, said on Sunday, “I don’t think there will be hundreds of deaths, but we will see.” He added, “I’m telling you what we’ve seen. We haven’t seen anything that’s going to skyrocket.”
Maria was the strongest storm to hit the island in 90 years, but the initial federal response was sluggish. And on Monday, the Trump administration announced that it would let expire a ten-day waiver it had granted to exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act, an onerous, century-old law that makes getting supplies to the island more difficult. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are pushing for the administration to reconsider.
“Until we provide Puerto Rico with long-term relief, the Jones Act will continue to hinder much-needed efforts to help the people of Puerto Rico recover and rebuild from Hurricane Maria,” Senator John McCain said in a statement.