When President Donald Trump said that Hurricane María was not a “real catastrophe” because the death count (then at 16) didn’t match Hurricane Katrina’s, Puerto Ricans knew that his comments were insensitive, but also wrong. And when the death toll remained at 64 for months, Puerto Ricans also knew the number was inaccurate. That’s because for many of them, the names of their loved ones – who died as a result of the storm – were nowhere to be found on the government’s official list. At least that’s how it happened for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
The Bronx-born Puerto Rican justice was one of thousands who saw the hurricane hit the island from afar. Now, nearly a year later, she has opened up about why she knew the number 64 was not right. “He wasn’t a part of the 64,” Sotomayor said about a relative on ABC’s The View. “And we knew many others who weren’t either.”
Sotomayor’s cousin lost her elderly uncle because of Hurricane Maria. He depended on a ventilator, but the power outage and high temperatures made it impossible for him to survive. He spent eight days without a ventilator or ice to cool him off.
“I wasn’t quite accepting of the 64 person number because, not just my family, but many, many families in Puerto Rico experienced losses attributable to that storm,” Sotomayor added.
Like many Puerto Ricans, Sotomayor hadn’t heard from her family on the island after the storm. But she was able to send out a message to her family and others via local radio station WKAQ580. “For the people on the island, I want you to know that you are not alone,” Sotomayor said during the speech. “Puerto Rico will not only survive this. It will bloom once again.”
The government of Puerto Rico has since updated its official death toll to 2,975 after a study by George Washington University revealed an excess of nearly 3,000 deaths from September 2017 to February 2018. As a result, governor Ricardo Roselló is issuing a new committee that will reportedly create a new contingency plan based on the study’s findings, as well as commission the building of a memorial for the victims of Hurricane Maria.