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Is Puerto Rico Prepared For This Hurricane Season?


Today is the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season, so let's hear how Puerto Rico is getting ready as it continues to recover from last year's devastating Hurricane Maria. This week, a new study has brought the pain of that storm into sharp focus. Harvard researchers estimate the death count could be closer to 5,000, a huge gap from the government's official count of 64. Puerto Rico has commissioned its own study. That one is coming from George Washington University and has yet to be released.

Let me bring in NPR's Michel Martin. She is in San Juan. She's going to be hosting ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from there this weekend. Hey, Michel.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Hello. Greetings from San Juan.

KELLY: Greetings to you. All right, so let's start with this grim and huge number. What kind of explanation are you getting when you talk to officials there?

MARTIN: Well, this number seems to mean different things to different people. And we're going to hear another voice about this in a minute. But we spoke with the secretary of public safety, Hector Pesquera. And his reaction I can only describe as defensive. I mean, given that many people assumed that the death count would be larger as more information was known, I asked him, you know, why do you think it is that people are having such a strong reaction to this, and this is what he said.

HECTOR PESQUERA: I don't know why it is. There is no purpose on this government, myself included, to, say, lie or misrepresent or mislead people.

MARTIN: In essence he's saying, look; we partnered with George Washington University to do a study on the death count. Until then, we don't know what the numbers are. This isn't a cover-up. But the reality of it is that many people think that there has been one. They do not have a lot of confidence in their own government or in the federal government, and they think that there's been a lack of transparency.

KELLY: Yeah, I mean, what exactly are you hearing from ordinary Puerto Ricans about this?

MARTIN: Everyone here has a story, Mary Louise, of loss in some way, whether it's property, whether it's neighbors, whether it's family members. It's very painful. We visited a town called Mariana. It's on the southeast side of the island. It's very close to where the hurricane entered Puerto Rico. And I spoke with a woman named Christine Nieves, and this is what she had to say.

CHRISTINE NIEVES: It's so painful to feel that the pain, the suffering you're going through is not being acknowledged. And that creates its own side effect of suffering of, like, an alternative reality that they're creating. And then you start questioning the numbers.

KELLY: You're hearing people questioning the numbers, Michel. And of course this is as they are reckoning with, as we mentioned, the official start of the next hurricane season. And I know this has been - the purpose of your trip is to try to figure out how prepared the island is going to be for what may be coming next. What have you learned?

MARTIN: Well, we went to a FEMA warehouse. It's one of four new supply warehouses on the island. Before Hurricane Maria, there was only one. We heard from FEMA's federal coordinating officer for Maria, Mike Byrne. We saw a lot of water, a lot of tarps, a lot of cots. It was obviously meant to send a message that they are prepared and that they are working with municipalities to make sure that they're prepared. You know, the message was, we have a plan.

KELLY: Did you see evidence that they do have a plan, that they are prepared?

MARTIN: Well, there was a lot of - as we said, there was a very - it was a very impressive display of material and supplies. But we talked to the mayor of Humacao, Marcelo Trujillo. He estimates that 50 percent of the people in his area still don't have electricity. In fact, we saw power crews still stringing lines. He says that his municipality is not prepared. He says they're still cleaning up from Maria, and a lot of people are still taking hurricane prep into their own hands. The young woman we heard from earlier, Christine Nieves - she helps to run what's called a proyecto mutual. It's like a community kitchen where people can get meals once a day. This is what she told us when we ask if they have heard from FEMA.

NIEVES: We would love to hear from FEMA and government, and we would love to hear a good job doing our job, making our job easier because it really feels that we're running a mini government here.

MARTIN: So as you can see - that there's some disconnect from what the - the message that FEMA is presenting and how a lot of people outside of San Juan and main city centers say that they're receiving it.

KELLY: And Michel, I know you're going to bring us lots more of those voices, those stories. You're hosting ALL THINGS CONSIDERED both days, Saturday and Sunday, this weekend live from Puerto Rico.

MARTIN: We sure are. Thanks so much, Mary Louise. I think you'll - people will find it very interesting (laughter).

KELLY: We will be listening. That's NPR's Michel Martin reporting from San Juan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.