National Opinions

Puerto Rico death toll can’t be downplayed

A Puerto Rican flag inside a pair of shoes at a makeshift memorial for the victims of Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on June 1, 2018. In a report to Congress requesting recovery funds, the government acknowledged that 1,427 people died in Hurricane Maria. The official death toll was 64. An independent investigation put the death toll at 2,975 this week.
A Puerto Rican flag inside a pair of shoes at a makeshift memorial for the victims of Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on June 1, 2018. In a report to Congress requesting recovery funds, the government acknowledged that 1,427 people died in Hurricane Maria. The official death toll was 64. An independent investigation put the death toll at 2,975 this week. NYT

It only took an hour or two for President Donald Trump’s attempt to downplay the death toll in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria to be undercut by more accurate data. On Thursday, that effort looks even more starkly misguided with the release of new, much-higher estimates of mortality after the storm.

In early October, though, Trump was almost celebratory. Sitting with the island’s governor, he sought to demonstrate that he and his administration were prioritizing recovery efforts, using the failures of the George W. Bush administration on the Gulf Coast in 2005 as a counterpoint.

“Every death is a horror,” Trump said. “But if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering — nobody has ever seen anything like this.”

He asked Gov. Ricardo Rosselló what the death toll was from Maria and was told that, at that moment, it was 16.

“Sixteen people certified. Sixteen people versus in the thousands,” Trump crowed. “You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud.”

By the time Trump got on Air Force One to head back to the mainland, that death toll had been revised upward to 34, eventually landing at 64.

For Trump, the problem seems primarily to have been political. His administration, lauded for its handling of the storms that struck Texas and Florida, was being criticized for its slow responsein Puerto Rico and its failure to be prepared for the storm in advance. By downplaying the death toll and by comparing it to the political gold-standard in failed hurricane responses, Trump hoped to deflect that criticism.

But even after the number of deaths was pegged at 64, it was widely understood that the figure was far too low. Comparing annual mortality figures to the number of deaths reported after the storm, for example, showed a much bigger toll. The New York Times put the count at over 1,000 by the beginning of November — including an estimate of 556 deaths at the time of Trump’s visit. That would be nearly 35 times as many as Trump had insisted.

On Thursday, the Times reported that the government of Puerto Rico would give a higher figure to Congress in a request for additional recovery funds. The new figure: 1,427. More than 22 times as many as the previous estimate.

In that light, the comparison to Katrina, with a death toll of 1,833, looks far worse — as does Trump’s insistence that, on his watch, the government had avoided “the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died.”

It’s worth noting that the new official estimate from Puerto Rico is substantially lower than an estimate determined by a survey on the island conducted a research team from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Their estimate was that more than 4,600 people could have died after the storm, a total that makes Katrina pale in comparison.

The Washington Post’s fact-checking team was quick to note that this figure was a significant outlier in estimates of the mortality rate and that the margin of error on the study was very, very large, swinging from about 800 to 8,500 total deaths.

The new figure of 1,427, though, is bad enough. Every death is, as the president said, a horror. What’s unclear now is how many of those deaths could have been prevented by better preparation or a more effective response. (After the storm hit, Trump blamed the “very big ocean” separating Puerto Rico from the continental U.S. for slowing relief efforts.)

Comparisons to Katrina were inevitable with the newly released death toll, given how close the two figures are. But it’s Trump himself who set that disaster as the example to avoid. According to Trump’s own rhetoric, Maria was a “real catastrophe.”

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