A new Harvard study published Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine estimates that at least 4,645 deaths can be linked to the hurricane and its immediate aftermath, making the storm far deadlier than previously thought. Official estimates have placed the number of dead at 64, a count that has drawn sharp criticism from experts and local residents and spurred the government to order an independent review that has yet to be completed.
The Harvard findings indicate that health-care disruption for the elderly and the loss of basic utility services for the chronically ill had significant impacts, and the study criticized Puerto Rico’s methods for counting the dead — and its lack of transparency in sharing information — as detrimental to planning for future natural disasters. The authors called for patients, communities and doctors to develop contingency plans for such disasters.
You may recall that President Trump boasted about the low number of fatalities during his visit (the one where he tossed rolls of paper towels at American victims as if he were shooting a basketball). CNN reported at the time:
“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 of people that died — and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering … no one has ever seen anything like this.”
“What is your death count?” he asked as he turned to Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. “17?”
“16,” Rosselló answered.
“16 people certified,” Trump said. “Sixteen people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people and all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud. Everybody watching can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico.”
One wonders how proud Trump is now and whether he realizes a natural disaster — in which he showed far less interest than Houston’s Hurricane Harvey — on his watch had nearly three times as many fatalities as Katrina. Further study is warranted to determine how many of those who died were victims of government negligence in the weeks and even months following Hurricane Maria. To the extent that deaths were preventable, the responsibility rests on the administration’s shoulders. After all, Trump took credit (with Puerto Rican officials) for the low death count. Logically, they are all responsible for a death toll that, for comparison’s sake, is higher than the 9-11 death count (just under 3,000).
If we had a responsible Congress that took oversight seriously there would be a top-to-bottom review of the response. Individuals responsible for the rescue and rebuilding would be questioned under oath. Appropriate punishment would be doled out if it were determined that the body count was intentionally suppressed and, more important, if deaths could have been prevented. But don’t hold your breath — at least for the remainder of this year.
While Republicans spent years examining the death of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, I wouldn’t expect hearings on the deaths of nearly 4,700 Americans in Puerto Rico. A new Congress may be more receptive to requests for rigorous oversight. The people of Puerto Rico deserve at least that.