Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix | Analysis

Trump favorably compared Puerto Rico’s death toll to Hurricane Katrina. A study now says twice as many died in Puerto Rico.

May 29, 2018 at 10:59 AM

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During a visit to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico on Oct. 3, President Trump told Puerto Rican officials they should be “very proud” that hundreds didn’t die as in a “real catastrophe like Katrina.” (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

President Trump's never-ending quest for credit and his lack of foresight got the better of him in Puerto Rico.

A new study from Harvard University researchers estimates that at least 4,645 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The number comes as significant doubts linger about the official death toll of 64, and it reinforces the calamity that has played out there in the months since the island was ravaged in September and October.

It also suggests that Trump's hurricane response has failed — if we go by the standard he himself set.

In October, in the course of claiming credit for a successful response, Trump decided to favorably compare the official death toll in Puerto Rico, which was then 16, to the death toll after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, which was 1,833:

TRUMP: We've saved a lot of lives. If you look at the — every death is a horror. But if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous — hundred and hundred and hundreds of people that died. And you look at what happened here with really a storm that was totally overpowering. Nobody's ever seen anything like this. And what is your death count at this point, 17?

PUERTO RICO GOV. RICARDO ROSSELLÓ: Sixteen, certified.

TRUMP: Sixteen people, certified — 16 people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people.

“Sixteen versus literally thousands of people.” The count now, according to Harvard, is 4,645 vs. 1,833. More than twice as many people died because of Maria than Katrina, per the Harvard study.

This won't be the final word on the matter. A George Washington University study that Rosselló commissioned is due out in a few weeks, and to some degree this comes down to how deaths are tallied. As The Washington Post's article notes, it includes “health-care disruption for the elderly and the loss of basic utility services for the chronically ill” after the storm (the U.S. territory experiences significant infrastructure problems, including, most notably, with its electrical grid). But the researchers found a 62 percent increase in the island's mortality rate, compared with 2016.

All of this seems a little crass, of course. Comparing the number of people who died all these months later to show Trump was wrong will undoubtedly rub his supporters the wrong way. But this is an argument that Trump put forward himself while repeatedly making the case that his hurricane response was successful. This was the statistic he chose to focus on, and now it tells precisely the opposite story that he had hoped. He used the death toll as a measure of success, relative to Katrina, and now it looks more like a measure of how the response has come up short.


Aaron Blake is senior political reporter, writing for The Fix. A Minnesota native, he has also written about politics for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Hill newspaper.

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