- A new study suggests over 5,000 died in Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria
- Trump has essentially ignored the island's plight
- His administration bungled the hurricane response efforts, leaving many Americans to die
- To all this, the media is focused on other stories with regards to Trump, letting him off the hook for Maria
By Ty Joplin
Residents of Puerto Rico have long tried to express the scope of devastation Hurricane Maria caused on their island in late 2017. The U.S. government’s official death toll from the hurricane in Puerto Rico is 64, but a new study conducted by Harvard University claims the actual number of people killed exceeds 4,600.
U.S. President Donald Trump himself once bragged that Maria had killed far less than Hurricane Katrina, which killed over 1,800 people. But now it appears Maria killed far, far more people than previously believed, and proved more catastrophic for human life than Katrina.
Trump’s presidency has been defined by a constant stream of scandals, gaffes, revelations and tweets, making it nearly impossible to discern what is a unimportant from what is legacy-defining.
Hurricane Maria, it can now be said, is one of the worst disasters to have ever hit the United States. It destroyed the country’s infrastructure, of which it has yet to rebuild, wrecked the country’s already strained finances and killed more than the September 11th attacks and Katrina.
Hurricane Maria should be one of Trump’s defining moments in his presidency. His failure to adequately respond to the hurricane and provide quick and effective aid is partially responsible for the massive death toll. This failure is now measurably worse than former president George Bush’s failure to help the people of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which marked his presidency forever.
But Trump will likely never have to be held accountable for what he did and did not do with regards to Maria. Trump’s style as a president has tested the rules of media coverage and broken them, and most major media outlets have failed to adapt.
That he let thousands of Americans die and disavowed was a small, short story that is now nearly irrelevant. Trump’s other bombastic forays on Twitter and in speeches has enticed reporters away from Puerto Rico, dooming their plight to be a fringe issue.
Puerto Rico’s Oblivion
A destroyed road in Toa Alta, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico (AFP/FILE)
While bodies were floating through flood streets and families were rifling through debris to find the corpses of loved ones, Trump openly bragged about how few had died when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico.
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?
Ricardo Rosselló, Governor of Puerto Rico: 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.
Trump publicly bragged that hurricane that hit under his watch are less deadly than hurricane that have hit under previous presidents’. Beyond the obvious delusional self-conceit lies a grim calculus of dead Americans.
But a new study published by the New England Journal of Medicine and conducted by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests Trump should re-calibrate his understanding of how many Americans have died during his tenure.
A man walks with an umbrella in Luquillo, Puerto Rico in September, 2017 (AFP/FILE)
By going to the island and interviewing thousands of families to determine if they lost relatives, then extrapolating the data island-wide, the study estimates that 4,645 people died thanks to Hurricane Maria. Although that number represents the median of 793 to 8498 estimated deaths, the study posits that many more than 4,600 people died.
“Our estimate of 4645 excess deaths from September 20 through December 31, 2017, is likely to be conservative since subsequent adjustments for survivor bias and household-size distributions increase this estimate to more than 5000,” the study argues.
The official government count of 64 only included those who directly died from the storm; drownings and being hit by debris. It does not include indirect deaths, which account for the vast majority of those who lost their lives due to the hurricane. Harvard’s mortality count, however, accounts for indirect deaths, and thus puts the number of lives lost in the thousands.
Put simply, Hurricane Maria is one of the worst disasters to ever hit the United States, and the U.S. government has not acknowledged that. Its misrepresentative death toll amounts to disavowal of the damage Maria caused.
To understand the scope of the damage better, Al Bawaba spoke with a resident and prominent activist of Puerto Rico, Tara Rodriguez Besosa, who is leading the way to rebuild the island’s agricultural infrastructure.
“More than 80% of agricultural production was lost,” Rodriguez Besosa said.
“Federal government has given out funding opportunities, but on the ground it is difficult and bureaucratic sometimes to get access to these funds, not all farmers have the ability,” she added. She also said that people have simply lost their faith in the government to rebuild, so they are beginning to rely on themselves.
Hurricane Maria nearly destroyed Puerto Rico in September 2017.
Apart from those who died, hundreds of thousands fled to the mainland of the U.S., the already bankrupt island suffered $94 billion in damage, and many are still living without running water or electricity.
Many died in hospitals and homes that lost electricity or were cut off from medical help. According to the Harvard study, “approximately one third of post-hurricane deaths were reported by household members as being caused by delayed or prevented access to medical care.”
Trump’s Disavowal of Puerto Rico
Much of the extent of Hurricane Maria could have been prevented by suring up the island’s finances, providing rapid and effective aid and ensuring long-term reconstruction efforts. Trump did none of this and has seemingly forgotten that Puerto Rico exists.
He has not made a comment about the updated death toll and seems more concerned with pardoning himself of any legal wrongdoing than with concentrating on helping Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which was notoriously negligent of the suffering of New Orleans when Katrina hit, also mishandled Hurricane Maria. As Puerto Rico remained without power, FEMA broke with its long protocol of seeking direct help from directly from the mainland and handed over the long-term responsibility of rebuilding the electrical grid to the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
Having never been handed a task this gargantuan, the USACE failed the Puerto Rican people by taking months to restore power to some places, leaving millions in the dark for long periods of time. Without power, many hospitals and homes were without lifelines or means of providing medical aid to those whose treatments require power.
Trump waves as he makes it way to Puerto Rico in 2017 (AFP/FILE)
A full seven months after Maria hit the island, stories emerged that those with kidney problems that requires dialysis machines had to walk for 12 hours to get their required treatment.
As the costs of the hurricane piled onto amount to more than $90 billion, Trump asked Congress for a measly $5 billion in loans to help the battered island. In contrast, Trump requested nearly $8 billion in aid and grants to be sent to Texas and Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which hit during the same storm season.
Much of the money were grants, meaning the states would not need to pay them back. Trump’s eagerness to make Puerto RIco pay back what the U.S. government gives it in a time when Puerto Rico is suffering gives an indication of how he skirted taking responsibility for the island.
Trump appeared to spend more concerned with beefing with San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, than lobbying Congress to send more aid to Puerto Rico.
The Media’s Failure to Hold Trump to Account
Shoes set to represent the thousands who likely perished during Hurricane Maria (RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP)
But Trump is not the only one who failed the Puerto Rican people. Major media outlets have largely centered Trump as the star around which they orbit proverbially, extracting as many salacious headlines and scandalous breaking news around his life and associates as they can.
Meanwhile, stories of Puerto Ricans, who have suffered their worst catastrophe in 80 years, are relegated to singular feature stories, opinion pieces—no longer are they breaking news.
As Trump has stopped tweeting about the island and does not appear to care, major news outlets like Politico, The New York Times and MSNBC publish only perfunctory stories on the continuous fallout of Hurricane Maria without the expectation that their revelations will hold Trump accountable to those he let die. The real news lies elsewhere.
This is not to say that other developments during Trump’s administration are not important: people deserve to know of his campaign’s corruption, his fumbles towards Iran and his antagonism towards crucial U.S. allies. In these regards, he must be held to account.
But in these personality-centered news cycles, Trump is getting away with his own Katrina with relative ease. Even though thousands of Americans likely died due to his administration’s’ mishandling of the crisis, major news outlets appear content to not confront him about it.
And if the death toll won’t make news, the slow stripping of Puerto Rico certainly will not either. “With the hurricane there are also much bigger storms,” Rodriguez Besosa said.
“The buying out of our land, the forced exodus of its people, the butchering of its ecosystems, and the misuse of “relief” funds for ineffective and inefficient efforts. Our public school system is being dismantled, our economy is being replaced,” and more.
The Trump administration let thousands die and has ignored millions of Americans continue who suffer from the fallout. But because he’s forgotten about it, others in power seem to have forgotten it as well.
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