EDITOR’S NOTE: Comments from Bobby Sena were added at 4:47 p.m. Aug. 29.
PUERTO RICO (BP) — It’s “a miracle” Hurricane Maria’s death toll in Puerto Rico is not even higher than the new official total of 2,975, a massive jump from the long purported 64, a Southern Baptist disaster relief leader told Baptist Press.
The new count, based on an independent study that the territory commissioned from George Washington University (GWU), makes the hurricane one of the deadliest in U.S. history.
David Melber, president of North American Mission Board’s Send Relief arm, is in the territory today (Aug. 29) and sent BP a comment.
“Based on what we have seen, we expected the death toll was higher,” Melber said, “but given the magnitude of the storm it is a miracle that it was not higher than even the current report. We are certain the death toll would have been much greater had Southern Baptists and so many others not responded so quickly” in relief aid after the hurricane.
Puerto Rican native and Southern Baptist pastor Felix Cabrera also told BP the higher number is no surprise.
“The effect of this hurricane in the island proved that we were not ready for this kind of natural disaster,” Cabrera said. “The government tried, but they were not prepared in both logistics and preventions.
“Unfortunately, the reaction of the federal government was too slow and we didn’t receive the same attention that Houston and Florida received,” said Cabrera, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Central in Oklahoma City and second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“I’m very proud and grateful to be a Southern Baptist and for the continuous support that our churches, through NAMB and Send Relief, gave and are giving to restore Puerto Rico,” he said, “but also for the focus to take advantage of this crisis to make Christ known to my people.”
Bobby Sena, Hispanic relations consultant to the SBC Executive Committee, expressed sadness upon news of the higher death toll.
“I will continue to pray for the families that have lost loved ones. I will continue to celebrate that out of the ashes, rubble and devastation, a new Puerto Rico church has risen!” Sena told BP. “I am thankful the pastors have continued working to rebuild, sharing the Gospel, teaching and ministering despite the conditions on the island.
“The tenacity and resilience of the pastoral leadership and their church membership are amazing,” Sena said.
Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers have helped recovery efforts on the island, where Annual Church Profile reports place about 40 Southern Baptist churches.
“Southern Baptists have been in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria’s landfall and we are still there,” Melber said. “We saw tragedies unfold and we saw many, many people served, the Gospel being shared and Christ being honored. Critical to the response were and are FEMA and PREMA (Puerto Rico Emergency Management Agency), whose professionalism and compassion played a key role in saving lives on the island.”
GWU looked at deaths that occurred between Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, and deaths deemed in excess of Puerto Rico’s normal mortality rate through February 2018. GWU’s study put Maria-related deaths at between 2,975 and 3,290.
While Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello adopted the lower number as the official count, Rossello’s number could rise, the Washington Post reported today.
The deaths were concentrated in 18 cities, with the highest fatality increases in metropolitan San Juan, the island of Vieques and western Puerto Rico. The elderly and poor were hardest hit, especially men over 65, according to GWU’s report.
Higher death tolls have been circulated since last year. A survey from Harvard University in the spring put the excess deaths at between 800 and 8,000, the Post reported. Puerto Rican residents have protested the government’s previous refusal to raise the death toll, the Post said, sometimes setting thousands of pairs of shoes in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol building in San Juan with names of the dead.
The current official death toll exceeds Hurricane Katrina’s carnage of 1,833 in 2005, but is still short of the deadliest hurricane in recorded U.S. history. The Galveston hurricane of 1900 killed between 6,000 and 12,000, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.