We collected hundreds of stories from Puerto Ricans who say their relatives died because of Hurricane Maria but were overlooked by the government. Names of the dead were matched against government death records released by the Puerto Rican government in response to a lawsuit by CPI. Together, we interviewed about 300 families of the dead and reviewed the records of nearly 200 others using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s criteria for certifying disaster-related deaths. Given the Puerto Rican government’s woefully incomplete death toll from Hurricane Maria, CPI, Quartz and the AP investigated who died because of the storm and why. The project involved a large survey, phone interviews, a government lawsuit, that resulted in an unmatched analysis of the scope and nature of Maria’s death toll.
What makes this project innovative?
Our project is the only large-scale journalistic effort we know of to capture the loss of life in a natural disaster using an online survey to create a database of verified deaths. It’s a novel combination of on-the-ground reporting with crowdsourcing and data journalism. We sued the government to obtain statistics it wouldn’t release, and collected victims’ leads from various sources. In addition to the online survey, we identified many cases at a mass protest in San Juan. After we won the suit, the government released the island’s mortality statistics and records but didn’t identify which were hurricane-related. We used data journalism tools to single out hurricane-related deaths, cross-referencing and verifying with official statistics and death certificates, and we automated parts of the data collection process. The statistical analysis program R was used to collect, clean and de-duplicate cases into a spreadsheet of uniform death records. Innovation is also seen in the final project, where the investigation results are presented in a dynamic scroll-down format that combines interactive data visualizations with victim profiles and analysis. For a unique element, we extracted quantitative data from interviews in which family members mentioned the causes of death, ran a text analysis to identify the most common circumstances of death, and then layered individual quotes on top of hard numbers in a graphic. Mindful of incorporating victims’ perspectives, the database portion was conceived as a remembrance wall, rather than as a set of statistics. We published in both Spanish and English to make it accessible to all who contributed their stories, as well as others who lost family members. In a nod to the Puerto Rican roots of the project, we used the work of a beloved local artist in the design of the website.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
In the days after the hurricane, CPI’s local reporting was the first to challenge the official toll. It was echoed by dozens of media outlets around the world, forcing the Puerto Rican government to recognize its woefully inaccurate death toll, and in December 2017 to initiate its own research. The study, conducted by George Washington University, estimated the toll at 2,975, but did not identify individual victims. Our analysis of the hundreds of cases we collected also sheds light on why so many died, and how the government could prevent deaths in the future. Our sample of 504 cases shows that for months after the hurricane, hundreds died due to lack of basic medical attention and services amid the months-long electricity and communications blackout. Stories we heard from victims’ family members show that the local and federal governments were unprepared for the storm and then slow to respond to it. These problems led to many likely preventable deaths. The results underscore the importance of keeping timely and accurate death statistics, which are vital to identify and address deadly situations in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. It also provides a framework for planning a better response to future disasters aimed at saving lives. Aside from our analysis and reporting, the public gained access to thousands of government records. Finally, our work provides a head start for epidemiologists interested in studying Maria’s death toll in depth.
Source and methodology
Initially, we relied on documents, including death certificates and funerary home notices, submitted by victims’ family members interviewed by CPI and who responded to our survey. We later got access to Puerto Rico’s Mortality Database, after CPI won its case against the government. Puerto Rico has no FOI law. What applies is local jurisprudence, which establishes that any document, data, or information produced by the government or with public funding is presumed public, unless the government can prove there is an imperative reason to keep it confidential, like a security threat or personal-privacy violations. Thus, a full lawsuit was necessary. The court ordered the government to release its complete mortality database, which included records for 23,000 people who died in Puerto Rico from September 18th 2017 to June 7th 2018. That includes a spreadsheet with 185 fields, including cause of death, geographic and demographic information, and death certificates for all individuals. The government at first released 2,000 paper copies of death certificates, and a couple of weeks handed over the rest in PDF files in no particular order and with no identifiers. We loaded them into Document Cloud and discovered that the document name of each PDF file was in fact a unique death number that allowed us to do searches. In the end, these documents proved crucial to the investigation because it was the only place where we could find phone numbers to contact victims’ family members who didn’t answer our online survey, or didn’t fill the telephone number field. Our main sources were relatives of victims’ families through our online survey, which we created with advice from public health experts. Their responses included demographic data, as well as accounts of what happened. We gathered data about more victims at a public memorial at the state Capitol, where families left victims’ shoes. We also conducted nearly 300 telephone interviews with those respondents, and talked to subject experts and government officials.
Centro de Periodismo Investigativo: Omaya Sosa Pascual, Carla Minet, Laura Candelas, Jeniffer Wiscovitch, Laura Moscoso, Víctor Rodríguez, David Cordero, Luis Trelles, Cindy Burgos, Mari Mari Narvaez, Edmy Ayala and Emmanuel Estrada. Quartz: Ana Campoy, Youyou Zhou, Caitlin Hu, David Yanofsky, Daniel Wolfe, Nikhil Sonnad, Feli Sanchez, Max de Haldevang and Amanda Shendruk. The Associated Press: Michael Weissenstein, Ezequiel Abiu Lopez, Luis Alonso, Claudia Torrens, Ben Fox, Danica Coto, Maricarmen Rivera, Gisela Salomón, Larry Fenn, Troy Thibodeaux, Mark Thiessen, Rachel D’oro and Dan Joling.