An aerial view of the homes hit by hurricane Maria in Naranjito, Puerto Rico, on October 23
When Hillary Clinton faced Donald Trump in 2016, she uncovered concerns about his temperament on a central question: "Imagine that Donald Trump sits in the Situation Room making life or death decisions on behalf of the United States," he said you. The attack focused on national security, but the argument went beyond the role of commander-in-chief to further questions about Trump's ability to deal with a number of potential crises. How would he react to an emergency in public health? How would he deal with a natural disaster?
We now have an answer to this question as the extent of the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria becomes clearer. What we have learned is that there are life and death consequences for someone like Donald Trump on behalf of the federal government. The profound failure of leadership and management that Trump's critics feared has actually happened, and we are just learning the magnitude of this disaster.
The Puerto Ricans were still recovering from Hurricane Irma when Maria hit land last fall. The storm destroyed the island, destroyed houses and paralyzed the vital infrastructure. The ensuing crisis required an immediate and robust response from the federal government. But the answer was sluggish, though early reports made it clear that this was a serious tragedy. The White House had made some preparations in advance of the storm, and it took weeks for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to devote all of its resources to the island. During this time, clean water was scarce, food was hard to find, and hospitals struggled to take care of patients, some with serious injuries and illnesses. Most of Puerto Rico had no electricity for months, and there were few medical services. When the FEMA finally acted, she dropped the ball. To deliver 30 million meals, the agency has signed a catering service provider in Atlanta that has no experience in emergency management. By the time the contract was terminated, it had delivered only 50,000 of these meals.
The impact of these missteps was not immediately clear. According to the government, only 64 people died in the disaster, compared to more than 1,800 who are estimated to have died in Hurricane Katrina. Trump noticed this difference when he visited the island. "Every death is a horror," Trump said, "but if you look at a real disaster like Katrina, and you look at the monster – hundreds and hundreds of people who have died, and you look at what's really going on here is a storm that was just totally overpowering, no one has ever seen such a thing. "He congratulated himself and even accepted Twitter about unfair treatment of those who criticized the administration's response: [Niemand konnte das getan haben] What I do with it have made little appreciation for #PuertoRico. So much work!"
We now know that this initial death rate was probably wrong by many orders of magnitude. The persecution of deaths is always difficult in the wake of such a catastrophic disaster, but recent research shows that the federal government has grossly underestimated the number of people killed by the hurricane. After reviewing the mortality data, both the New York Times and the Center for Investigative Journalism estimated more than 1,000 deaths from the hurricane and its aftermath. A new Harvard study, released Tuesday and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, estimated that at least 4,465 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria, making them the deadliest natural disaster to have occurred in the United States since 1900 powerful hurricane devastated Galveston, Texas and surrounding areas, killing at least 8,000 people. The researchers, who studied thousands of randomly selected homes in Puerto Rico, asked residents for deaths and extrapolated from the findings, attributing many of the deaths to hospital interruptions and the loss of essential services.
A faster, stronger response would have prevented some of these deaths. Even if the White House was unprepared when the storm set in, much of the consequences could have been averted if President Trump had focused his administration on the disaster and transferred the weight of the federal government to the looming tragedy. Instead, Trump sent every signal he did not care. He downplayed the devastation to Puerto Rico and rebuked Puerto Ricans for not doing more to repair the damage. He went to the mayor of San Juan, who had criticized the government's response. He did not use his Twitter account to publish relief efforts or generally encourage Americans to help. But what he did during that time was a campaign for political allies and a feud with black footballers.
Puerto Rico is part of the United States, Puerto Ricans are American citizens, and as president, Donald Trump had a responsibility to help them as they fought a disaster. He did not, and the result was suffering and death on a large scale.
The Trump government's extraordinary scandals – including the President's public efforts to protect himself and his associates from wrongdoing – are important. But they should not blind us to the real weight of his usual transgressions. Donald Trump failed Puerto Rico and nobody should forget it.