“TO THE people of Puerto Rico: Do not believe the #FakeNews! . . . My Administration, Governor @RicardoRossello, and many others are working together to help the people of Puerto Rico in every way . . . #FakeNews critics are working overtime, but we’re getting great marks from the people that truly matter!”
That series of tweets from President Trump last September as Puerto Rico struggled to deal with the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria was followed by a claim to Puerto Rican officials they should be “very proud” that hundreds didn’t die from Maria as in a “real catastrophe like Katrina.” He later rated his administration’s response to the disaster as a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. His remarks are worth revisiting in light of the official toll of Maria-related deaths, which has been revised from 64 to 2,975.
How many lives could have been saved if the president had not been so nonchalant — even uncaring — about the magnitude of the problems? Why did he seemingly spend more effort patting himself on the back than getting help to the stricken island? And would more have been done sooner if the American citizens who suffered and died had not lived in Puerto Rico, but rather Florida or Alabama?
Ricardo Rosselló, Puerto Rico’s governor, announced the change in the official death toll last week in the wake of a report by independent researchers from George Washington University that determined that nearly 3,000 more deaths than expected occurred in the months after Maria hit the island. The new tally of 2,975 exceeds by more than 50 percent the number who died during Katrina in 2005. It almost equals the number who were killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and it makes Maria the worst natural disaster in the United States in more than a century.
Puerto Rico’s government commissioned the study after its initial account of 64 dead was challenged by findings of a New York Times analysis and study by Harvard University researchers. The original government death toll was limited to people who died during the storm. But as the George Washington study made clear in horrifying detail, the havoc and dangers continued long after the winds died down; lives were lost because people didn’t have power or water or access to health care, and help was too slow in coming.
That it took more than 10 months for an accurate count to be made of the dead is indicative of the ineptitude of local officials and the indifference of federal officials that has been the hallmark of the response to Maria. “Now it’s proven. This is a ‘people died’ story,” said San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, one of the few officials to emerge from Maria with any credibility. “This is not a number, it’s . . . people who will never see the light of day, and many of them died because of neglect.”
Mr. Trump reiterated after the report’s release that “we did a fantastic job. . . . Most of the people in Puerto Rico really appreciate what we’ve done.” He can spin all he wants, but what he can’t change is the fact that nearly 3,000 U.S. citizens died on his watch. For that, there is only thing he should say and that, as Ms. Cruz put it, is “I’m sorry.”