There is a new official death toll for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico: 2,975. With previous estimates ranging from 51 to 4,645, the new official toll is closer to the midpoint, but more than 50 times as high as the most widely distributed number from Puerto Rico’s government, 64.
A study commissioned by Governor Rossello from the Milliken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University estimates excess deaths in Puerto Rico from September 2017 to February 2018 at 2,975. Only 40% of municipalities experienced higher than normal death rates, and there was a significant difference based on the economic positions of the various municipalities.The death rate stood at 45% higher than usual in lower socioeconomic areas throughout the study.
That means that deaths from Hurricane Maria were still taking place at the end of February in low-income areas where electricity and clean water and access to health care were still issues. Given that full electrical restoration did not occur until a few weeks ago, it is unclear when these difficulties stopped causing “excess deaths.”
The White House said that President Trump “remains proud of all of the work the Federal family undertook to help our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.” “Federal family” in this context presumably refers to FEMA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the USDA, and other federal agencies and entities involved in the disaster response. Trump told reporters that the government had done “a fantastic job.”
Not everyone agreed.
Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) released a statement saying, ““Once again, we have yet more mounting evidence about the enormity of the tragedy that befell Puerto Rico last year. These numbers are only the latest to underscore that the federal response to the hurricanes was disastrously inadequate and, as a result, thousands of our fellow American citizens lost their lives. Notably, this study also confirms that lower income communities disproportionately suffered the greatest loss of life.”
Velazquez referenced her introduction of a bill to establish standards for disaster death tolls, as well as an independent investigation of the response to Hurricane Maria. Her statement concluded, “If one thing is clear from this latest estimate it is this – our nation failed the people of Puerto Rico and we can never allow such an inexcusable moral lapse to occur again.”
Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) tweeted, “The loss of so many lives is heartbreaking & reprehensible. We must do all we can to help our fellow citizens recover & rebuild.”
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) tweeted, “These were our fellow citizens and this administration failed them. Congress must do its job to send long-overdue resources. We can’t let this slip into silence.”
Most news sites focused on the juxtaposition of a tragedy so devastating that the loss of life — greater than that of 9/11 — wasn’t even estimated fully until nearly a year later, with the “fantastic job” self-assessment of the administration.
Jonathan Bernstein of the Post and Courier made the point that most members of Congress haven’t responded to the most important question: how to avoid repeating the mistakes that caused Puerto Rico still to be counting deaths from the hurricane months later. Instead of focusing on the moral question, Bernstein suggests, Congress should be figuring out how to respond better in future.
Other news organizations, such as CNN and NBC, are echoing Velazquez’s demand for an investigation.
Social media showed similar messages, but also widespread claims that the death toll was intentionally misreported. The official report addressed these concerns, saying, “Despite the potential for information gaps to increase the risk of the propagation of misinformation and rumors, the Government of Puerto Rico did not systematically monitor and address misinformation or rumors in news outlets and on social media platforms. Efforts undertaken by outside groups to fill information gaps and identify hurricane-related deaths added to conflicting mortality reports.” Their conclusion is that there was a communication problem rather than a cover up.
The report recommends that Puerto Rico establish a system for dealing with future catastrophes in relation to collecting, analyzing, and communicating mortality rates.
Read the full report: