Since the early days after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, the debate over the death toll has raged. Initial reports that fewer than 100 people had died were seized upon by the Trump administration, but they belied the scope of the devastation. The storm left the island without electricity for months, hospitals and other key infrastructure shuttered, roads unpassable and pharmacies closed.
In June, Caribbean News Director Mike Weissenstein in Havana forged a partnership with Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism (known by its Spanish initials CPI) and U.S.-based news site Quartz to undertake the most comprehensive list to date of Puerto Ricans who died in the wake of the storm.
For the project, Weissenstein, San Juan newswoman Danica Coto, Washington-based data journalist Larry Fenn, New York-based reporter Claudia Torrens, Miami-based reporter Gisela Salomon, Washington-based reporters Luis Alonso and Ben Fox, as well as senior Havana-based producer Chris Gillette, Havana photographer Ramon Espinosa, Santo Domingo reporter Ezequiel Lopez Blanco, Mexico-based digital producer Dario Lopez, New York-based motion graphics producer Peter Hamlin and enterprise editor Raghuram Vadarevu, based in Phoenix, share the Best of the Week award-
Telling the stories, one by one in multiple formats, of the 487 deaths documented in the project.
Over three months, AP staff across the U.S. and the Caribbean dedicated long hours to the project. Fenn worked with our partners to match hundreds of tips to a database of death certificates released after a lawsuit by the CPI against the Puerto Rican government. Torrens, Alonso and Fox, who was then a Caribbean-focused news manager in Miami, worked with the team interviewing hundreds of families with a questionnaire based on the criteria the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention use to determine if a death is indirectly disaster related.
Gillette and Espinosa joined reporters interviewing victims’ families and authorities in Puerto Rico to produce a multiformat piece that linked deaths to government inaction and poor decision-making. Lopez turned the work into a wrenching online video and Vadarevu produced a series of features that gave the work a vibrant presence online. Lopez Blanco spent days on the unromantic but essential task of copy-editing hundreds of accounts of victims’ final days.
Those results were to be published on the anniversary of the storm, but when President Donald Trump tweeted that only dozens died, and reports of thousands of people dead were politically motivated false news, the partners launched a 24-hour rush to get the project out online. One day after the president’s remarks, the AP and its partners published text stories, an interactive database, websites in English and Spanish and compelling photos and video telling, one by one, the stories of the 487 deaths documented in the project.
The collaboration made AP part owner of one of the most important pieces of data in the debate over the death toll in Hurricane Maria, and was widely cited in TV, websites and in print around the world. One of the Washington Post’s lead Puerto Rico reporters tweeted: “THIS is a big deal.” And Walter Robinson, former head of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigative team commented: “What extraordinary, painstaking, thorough reporting … Wow!”
The judges could not agree more, and for their months of hard work, the all-format team from Latin America and the United States wins the inaugural Best of the Week competition.