La Crosse doctor, back from Puerto Rico, suspects hundreds more dead

Dr. Julio Bird and his wife, Maribel, who have apartment and property in Puerto Rico and were there helping clean up after Hurricane Irma, were there when Maria leveled the island.

ERIK DAILY, La Crosse Tribune

There’s a difference between maintaining your footing against 80 mph winds on the world’s highest mountain and hunkering down in a concrete home during a 20-hour assault by a killer hurricane with 150 mph winds, says Dr. Julio Bird, who now has done both.

“The thing about Mount Everest is there’s a goal,” reaching the peak, the La Crosse physician said during an interview Tuesday with his wife, Maribel, as they talked about their experiences during and after Hurricane Maria made landfall Sept. 20 in their native Puerto Rico.

“In a hurricane, your adrenaline is pumping. But there’s a different goal when you’ve never been in winds of 120 to 150 mph,” said Julio, who scaled Mount Everest in 2002 and 2010. “When winds are 70 to 80 mph on Everest, you studiously avoid that. There is a lot more unknown in a Category 4 to 5 hurricane. I have some faith in concrete.”

The Birds were in Puerto Rico in part to help relatives and friends clean up from damage Hurricane Irma inflicted Sept. 6 and 7. Then Maria raked the island and finished the destruction that Irma had only begun. They were staying in an apartment they have owned for 14 years, in a concrete building, but they took shelter from Maria in Maribel’s sister’s concrete home.

The house withstood the hurricane, although Julio ventured out into the teeth of the storm to secure a corrugated shutter that had come loose. A section of roof was ripped from a loft area.

Although there was little damage — “a broken window and some leakage,” Julio said — to their apartment, the lush, green 2.5-acre plot they own outside of San Juan and hope to build on someday was stripped bare.

“The real damage happened in those small towns,” he said.

“There were trees in our yard we didn’t know where they came from,” Maribel said, adding that her first hurricane was a frightening experience. “It was the whistle before all the wind and rain. I thought we could be killed.”

The Category 4 winds lasted from midnight until 8 p.m., the Birds said.

Troubling response

The Birds share angst about the attitude of some on the mainland toward the U.S. territory’s plight and the Trump administration’s response to the hurricane, which destroyed much of the island and left most residents still without water or limited supply, a scarcity of food, and little or no electricity.

They took different tacks in approaching the topic Tuesday: Julio, 67, a cardiologist at the Gundersen Health System Heart Institute in La Crosse, is more politically neutral; 65-year-old Maribel, who retired last spring from teaching Spanish at Viterbo University, is more vociferous.

But they both scoffed at the reported death toll, which was 16 when President Donald Trump visited the island on Oct. 3, based on an optimistic analysis he had received from Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.

“We saved a lot of lives,” Trump told Puerto Ricans that day, adding that the island was lucky it hadn’t been a “real catastrophe like (Hurricane) Katrina,” which killed more than 1,800 people in 2005.

The official death toll rose to 34 later that day, to 39 a few days later and increased to 45 on Tuesday.

“That is ridiculous,” Maribel said. “They will not know until they reach the rural areas.”

Many hospitals are still reporting their morgues are full. The bodies won’t be counted until the government certifies the deaths and determines they were hurricane-related.

News media in Puerto Rico suggest that 300 bodies are unprocessed, and scores of people are unaccounted for, likely drowning victims whose bodies have not been found, the Birds said.

“There are probably many still undiscovered bodies,” Julio said. “I’m betting 700 to 1,000, but I hope I’m wrong,” Julio said.

“It is partly the fault of the government for minimizing numbers,” he said.

Cow atop phone pole

Adding credence to the potential for hundreds more deaths is the fact that the bodies of hundreds of farm animals — horses, pigs and cows — have appeared since floodwaters subsided.

Julio told of a cow’s body found atop a telephone pole, leaving observers wondering whether the hurricane blew the cow there or the water reached that height.

The Birds reacted differently to Trump’s joking about the Caribbean island’s debt and tossing paper towels to victims at one stop.

“I can understand perhaps that some people might have been yelling for the president to pretend to shoot 3s to the crowd,” Julio said, adding, “People in Puerto Rico find humor in dark times.”

“Some were offended,” Maribel interjected.

Julio recalled the incident in 2008 when an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at President George W. Bush during a press conference and Bush deftly ducked, twice. Later, Bush deadpanned to reporters, “If you want the facts, it’s a size 10 shoe that he threw.”

“Sometimes, the sort of cluelessness is funny,” Julio said.

“Not to me,” Maribel insisted. Trump “diminished us. I wasn’t happy. I thought he was humiliating.

“When people are dying and calling in to the radio” to describe their dire straits, “we had to see the president having fun,” she said.

“It was insensitive,” Julio agreed, “like salt on the wound.”

Katrina quip hurt, too

Both objected to Trump’s comparison of Maria with Katrina and his dismissal of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto’s pleas for help as political. The brouhaha reduced Puerto Ricans to “second-class victims,” they said.

“That’s like me saying to a patient, ‘Your heart attack was nothing, compared to …,’” Julio said. “It’s all a matter of sensitivity.”

The governor took Trump on a tour of a well-protected area of concrete homes that held up better than most against the storm, the couple said.

“I think the governor shot himself in the foot,” Maribel said, probably lessening Trump’s perception of the damage instead of taking the president to a hard-hit area.

The Birds bristled at Trump’s Sept. 30 tweet in which he said, in part, that Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”

“The entitlement comment did not go well — that they are lazy people who want everything done,” Julio said. “I did not see that. People were helping each other, and neighbors were rebuilding the community. In one poor barrio, everybody was helping each other.”

Spirits remain high among most Puerto Ricans, even though they have to wait in line for everything, including cash. Businesses accept only cash, as registers that could process credit cards don’t have electricity.

Julio recalled waiting in line for 1½ hours for a loaf of bread. He found the experience trying but also a time to chat with people, unencumbered with distracting cellphones. Cellphone are used sparingly, partly because of poor reception and partly to conserve battery charges.

The couple had to drive several miles to be able to get a phone signal, which Maribel said forced decisions such as whether to use the gas to get to a spot where phone reception was possible or remain incommunicado while conserving gas.

Maribel showed a photo of dozens and dozens of people crammed into the lobby of a building that had power from a generator — all charging their phones.

Supporting family

The Birds didn’t consider leaving the island before the hurricane for a couple of reasons. For one thing, predicting the path of a hurricane is an inexact science, and they hoped it might veer away.

“The other thing is we couldn’t say we were bailing on family,” Julio said, as the Birds’ immediate family members number almost 20, with many more extended family members.

Julio said he has heard that as many as half a million of the island’s 3.5 million Americans will pack up what little they have left and leave.

“It’s more about the infrastructure than fear of hurricanes,” he said. “There is just a thin veneer to the infrastructure. The electric company had just laid off 1,500 people.”

As for the immediate future, Julio said, “It is the whole concept of how long will it be until social stability is reached. Some lost more than others. When does unrest set in? Human behavior will be the issue — the point at which enough is enough.”

Even as federal personnel and supplies arrive, Marie Antoinette’s fabled “let them eat cake” is repeated often, Julio said.

“It is a test to the island and the nation,” he said. “Now we know how Houston and Florida felt. How do you go from a First World country to a Third World country and do it gracefully?”

“It is a test to the island and the nation. Now we know how Houston and Florida felt. How do you go from a First World country to a Third World country and do it gracefully?” Julio Bird
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