Executive Editor and the National Editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet and Marc Lacey. (horizontal-x3)
Executive Editor and the National Editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet and Marc Lacey. (Juan Luis Martínez)

If a natural disaster served for anything, it would be to know if a government can rise to the occasion and protect lives and property.

Last year, sadly for 3.4 million US citizens, the facts and data collected in hundreds of stories published in The New York Times and El Nuevo Día point to, as it happened 13 years ago with Hurricane Katrina in the southern United States, both the local and federal governments failed Puerto Rico.

On the island, the failure of public institutions has been such that, a year after the hurricane, people still suffer the aftermath of the disaster.

Faced with this reality, according to the Executive Editor and the National Editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet and Marc Lacey, respectively, the press coverage of Hurricane Maria should continue in the front pages of the media, in order for the recovery process to be fully audited.

This, despite the White House's reluctance to recognize the failures of the federal response to the disaster, and President Donald J. Trump's recent attempt to minimize the magnitude of the catastrophic event, by calling into question the death toll associated with the cyclone.

The government's response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria and the role that journalism has played in documenting one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States was the core topic of the panel "Journalism: Staying with the Story 365 Days after Hurricane Maria ".

The event, coordinated by The New York Times and El Nuevo Día, marked the first anniversary of the cyclone and was hosted by the Emilio S. Belaval theater at the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón (Sacred Heart University-USC).

"It was through journalists from The New York Times, El Nuevo Día and many other media from within and outside of Puerto Rico who opened the eyes of the world to our stories and who, to this day, refuse to let the world forget," said USC president, Gilberto Marxuach, when opening the panel and reiterating the commitment of the University with the training of new journalists.

The only ones during crucial hours

"Puerto Rico will never be the same. We, will never be the same," said Maria Luisa Ferre Rangel, editor of GFR Media, when she pointed out that Hurricane Maria exposed the Puerto Rico that existed before the disaster and described it as "a poor country with misery and inequalities that had nothing to do with Maria, isolated communities that had been forgotten way before the hurricane hit, a health system that is completely broken, an infrastructure so fragile and so weak that it did not need a Hurricane category 5 to crumble".

In highlighting the work done during the hurricane, the editor of El Nuevo Día and Primera Hora stressed that GFR Media's computer platforms, together with Wapa Radio, were the only means of communication that operated uninterruptedly in Puerto Rico before , during and after the hurricane.

Global scope

Based on the study commissioned by Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevares to the George Washington University (GWU), Hurricane Maria was more lethal than Katrina in 2005 and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The number of fatalities associated with Katrina was estimated at 1,836 people. Back then, insurance claims reached $ 45 billion, a figure that would almost double if updated to 2017. The total damage associated with Hurricane Katrina was calculated between $ 135 billion and $ 161 billion.

Hurricane Maria would have left losses insured at $ 32 billion and total costs for $ 90 billion.

For Baquet, a native of New Orleans, "I don’t think there is any question" that the government failed to respond to Katrina and also failed in Puerto Rico.

A human tragedy

However, the most misunderstood balance of the disaster was the number of deaths, an issue that has kept Puerto Rico in a kind of limbo for almost a year.

 The first figure offered by the government was 16 deaths. Then, 64 were mentioned and that is where the official count ended to make way for the GWU study, which now points to 2,975 deaths.

"I can not imagine anything more painful than having the President of the United States make a comment like that," Baquet said when GFR Media's Editorial Advisor,

Luis Alberto Ferre Rangel, asked him about the position assumed by the federal government.

Last week, in Twitter, Trump praised the work of his administration regarding the recovery of the island and questioned the now official hurricane death toll.

Baquet regretted that Trump's expressions about Puerto Rico occurred while millions of people in the states of North Carolina and South Carolina remained in suspense about how Hurricane Florence would impact them. "This is a disaster that people are still going through a year later," said Lacey, who in 2010, covered the earthquake in Haiti.

Lacey said that to coordinate and plan the coverage of the New York Times in Puerto Rico, they used as reference several local media, but mainly, El Nuevo Día.

Trump and the press

The talks between Ferre Rangel, Baquet and Lacey also included the tension that prevails between the White House and the American media.

For Baquet, Trump´s  “incendiary comments" about the media constitute an affront to democracy and he stressed that these could result in similar attacks in other countries, where journalisms lack the strength that a democratic system provides.

 Baquet stressed that The New York Times has done with Trump the same it did during the administrations of Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and that has been questioning and incisively reporting the decisions and policies taken in the federal capital and that affect the lives of Americans and influence the rest of the world.

 "That's the way it's supposed to be," said the 1988 Pulitzer winner, for his coverage of public corruption in Chicago, Illinois.

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