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Puerto Rico government bows to pressure for hurricane-death recount

A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse.

A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories

Police lift the coffin of officer Luis Angel Gonzalez Lorenzo, who was killed while trying to cross a river in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria. Governor Ricardo Rossello has ordered a recount of the dead from the storm after accusations that the official toll is far short of the actual number of fatalities. (Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)

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Puerto Rico's grim math

For months now, the official death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria has stood at 64.

The Category 4 storm that swept over the island on Sept. 20, with winds of up to 248 km/h, destroyed thousands of homes. Even today, three months later, the electricity grid is still operating at 70 per cent of capacity and pockets of the territory remain in darkness.

By Gov. Ricardo Rossello's estimate, it will take $94 billion US to rebuild. That figure includes $46 billion for housing alone, and a further $30 billion to fully restore infrastructure like roads, bridges, schools and hospitals.

The official Hurricane Maria death toll in Puerto Rico, according to Gov. Ricardo Rossello's administration, is 64. Independent investigations put it at many times that figure. (Getty Images)
In the face of such devastation there have been questions about the relatively small official figure of lives lost in the disaster.

The Puerto Rico Center for Investigative Journalism has produced nine stories about the official death toll since late September, highlighting things such as overcrowded morgues and a surge in the number of missing people.

Roberto Figueroa Caballero, seen here in October, in what was left of his home on the coast of San Juan after Hurricane Maria hit. The storm did billions of dollars worth of damage to buildings and infrastructure. (Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)
Other media outlets have followed. In October, CNN spent two weeks contacting 112 funeral homes across the territory and found 499 hurricane-related deaths.

Last week, the New York Times published a detailed study comparing deaths on the island for the same period in 2015 and 2016. It came to the conclusion that 1,052 more people than usual died in the 42 days following Maria.

The stark figures have finally compelled Rossello to launch his own investigation, ordering a recount of the dead.

"We always expected that the number of hurricane-related deaths would increase as we received more factual information — not hearsay — and this review will ensure we are correctly counting everybody," he said in a statement. "Every life is more than a number, and every death must have a name and vital information attached to it."

Gov. Rossello, left, says it will take $94 billion US to rebuild what Hurricane Maria destroyed in Puerto Rico. So far, the U.S. government has approved $5 billion. (Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)
An accurate count may bring closure to some families, but it will do little to end the island's misery. As The National's Ionna Roumeliotis found in her trip in late November, the challenge of rebuilding is almost overwhelming.

And so far, the 3.4 million U.S. citizens who call the territory home have received a minimum of support from their government. While President Donald Trump has promised to increase aid, the actual amount approved by Congress so far is $5 billion — almost $90 billion less than the governor says he needs.

Holiday travel chaos

Yesterday's electrical fire at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is likely to have a ripple effect across North America for the better part of a week.

The fierce blaze in an underground vault left the world's busiest airport without power for 11 hours and forced the cancellation of almost 1,200 flights. At one point, 92 fully loaded planes were stranded on the tarmac — some for more than eight hours.

Passengers sleep in the terminal at Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Monday. The city opened its convention centre Sunday night to accommodate others who needed a place to sleep. ( John Amis/Associated Press)
Last night the City of Atlanta was forced to open its convention centre to accommodate the thousands of passengers in need of a place to sleep.

Even though the lights went back on shortly before midnight, the knock-on effect continues today with 413 more flights scrubbed and 150 others delayed.

Hartsfield-Jackson, the home base for Delta Airlines, handles 2,500 arrivals and departures and 275,000 passengers every day. Normal operations won't be fully resumed until tomorrow, and as it's the busiest time of year for air travel,  it will take days to clear the passenger backlog.

The fire could also create problems for people awaiting the delivery of Christmas presents.

Atlanta is a major UPS hub. It's not clear if the airport power failure has affected its operations, but UPS had already warned people earlier this month to expect delivery delays due to record volumes of packages. (Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press)
Delta's cargo operations have been suspended until midnight tonight for international flights, and domestic flights won't restart until early Wednesday morning.

Atlanta is the home and major hub of UPS. The company has yet to comment on whether the power outage has disrupted its operations, but earlier in the month it warned of delivery delays due to a record volume of online purchases this holiday season.

There was also some bad luck at a UPS processing centre in Maryland on Dec. 6, where a fire destroyed 10 tractor trailers stuffed with gifts.

The winds of change

François Gabart crossed an invisible line in the English Channel yesterday morning and entered the record books.

The French yachtsman shattered the round-the-world solo sailing mark, completing an easterly voyage in 42 days, 16 hours, 40 minutes and 35 seconds — a full six days faster than the old record.

French skipper Francois Gabart sailed a solo, non-stop trip around the world in a record 42 days, 16 hours, 40 minutes and 35 seconds. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)
Piloting the Macif, a 30-metre long, specially designed trimaran-hull boat, the 34-year-old often hit speeds above 40 knots — 75 km/h — on the trip, putting his vessel not far behind the kites-on-water that compete in the famed America's Cup.

And in the process, Gabart also notched a couple of other sailing records — the fastest solo crossing of the Pacific, and the longest distance travelled in 24 hours: 1,575 km.

Favourable weather made the record possible, but it wasn't always pleasant. The high speeds and large waves in the South Pacific made it a battering ride, and the Macif's sail-furling system broke three times after heavy jolts.

It was only last Boxing Day that another Frenchman, Thomas Coville, cut more than a week off to solo-sailing benchmark. It was his fifth attempt at the record; a triumph that was greeted with tears and champagne.  

Gabart lights flares aboard the Macif trimaran as he arrives off Brest harbour in western France on Sunday. (Thibault Camus/Associated Press)
The sailor Coville bested — yet another Frenchman, Francis Joyon — got a measure of revenge just a month later when he won the Jules Verne Trophy for the fastest crewed trip around the world, with a time of 40 days, 23 hours, 30 minutes and 30 seconds.

To put it in perspective, that means six men working in shifts were only two days faster than Gabart and the Macif.

As this tweet notes, it shows how much technology has changed since the first successful non-stop world voyage in 1969.

Quote of the moment

"It's ridiculous how hard I had to fight for that."

- Former firefighter Liane Tessier shares her feelings about the City of Halifax's official apology for gender discrimination. It comes after a 12-year battle with the municipality and her former colleagues.

Liane Tessier began working as a volunteer firefighter in 1998. (Liane Tessier)

What The National is reading

  • Austria's new far-right government to punish immigrants who 'keep culture.' (Independent)
  • K-Pop, boy band superstar Jonghyun dies. (BBC)
  • Ranchers near CFB Suffield wait for compensation for grass fire that killed cattle. (CBC)
  • How devout Christian Mike Pence's Christmas trip to the Middle East is losing its religion. (Haaretz)
  • In disputed Kashmir, Pakistan and India are racing to tap the Himalayas. (South China Morning Post)
  • The most moving photos of 2017. (National Geographic)
  • Wine glasses are almost seven times bigger than they were 300 years ago. (Quartz)

Today in history

Dec. 18, 1965: The war against war toys.

The Voice of Women are pretty down on "Secret Sam" and "Johnny Seven One Man Army," arguing that toy trench mortars condition boys to accept violence and war — and "may even contribute to juvenile delinquency."

In 1965 the Voice of Women Campaign rallies against the sale of very popular war toys. 1:41

About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.