Two weeks after Hurricane Maria was hurled to Puerto Rico, President Trump finally said goodbye to the golf course and visited devastated US territory. While hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans suffered in the dark, Trump threw rolls of paper towels at people and bragged about disaster relief. He quoted the official death census, then only 16 years old, as proof that Puerto Rico was not a "real disaster" like Hurricane Katrina. "Anyone watching can really be very proud of what happened in Puerto Rico," the president said.
Later, the death count was revised to 64. However, anyone who spent 10 minutes in Puerto Rico after the storm knew the official statistics was a lie. They could not come to a Uber in San Juan without hearing from someone whose aunt was trapped inside their house, or from a cousin who was still in the hospital. And outside of San Juan, especially on the west coast where the hurricane landed, and in the mountain villages around Utuado, the landscape was dotted with deserted dogs and collapsed houses. Even then, it was impossible to believe that only 64 people had died during an apparently very real disaster.
Now, thanks to a study published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine a better understanding of the human cost of this deadly storm. According to the study, between September 20, 2017 – the day that Mary landed in Puerto Rico – and December 31, there were approximately 4,645 "excessive deaths". This makes Maria the deadliest natural disaster in the US for 100 years, with twice the mortality rate as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.
The study, conducted by researchers at Harvard University, combined both street reporting and statistical analysis , Researchers visited a sample of 3,299 homes in Puerto Rico and asked respondents to provide information about relocated or deceased household members. From the data, the researchers estimated that 14.3 deaths per 1,000 people occurred over the entire island over a period of approximately three months. With this number, Harvard estimated that 4,645 excessive deaths occurred in Puerto Rico compared to the same period last year.
About one in three deaths was attributed to delays or interruptions in healthcare This was in many cases the result of widespread power outages across the island for weeks and months after the storm wiped out 80 percent of the island grid. And the estimate of 4,645 total deaths, she wrote, "is likely to be conservative, as subsequent adjustments for survivor bias and household size distributions will increase that estimate to more than 5,000."
This study raises a series of urgent questions. The most obvious being: Why did it take so long for an accurate death count to be counted? Or, to be precise, why did not anyone in the US federal government – or the Puerto Rican state government – care enough about the people in Puerto Rico to even count the dead?
It's hard to think more deeply A gesture of disrespect for the people who lost loved ones as a result of the storm. No wonder people are taking to the streets to protest against school closures and other austerity measures by the Puerto Rican government.
During the hurricane and its aftermath, Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló barely had a profile of courage. Not surprisingly, his office responded to the new death toll with a faint statement, offering a study at George Washington University: "As the world knows, the magnitude of this tragic catastrophe due to Hurricane Maria has many We have always expected the number to be higher than previously reported, so we commissioned George Washington University (GWU) to produce a detailed study of the number of deaths from Hurricane Maria, which will be released shortly We will be better prepared for future natural disasters and prevent the loss of human lives. "
But other political leaders in Puerto Rico were open. The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, who became a hero to many Puerto Ricans as she was ready to criticize President Trump and FEMA's rebuilding efforts, immediately put forward the provocative idea that the low official death toll was not accidental or a sign of incompetence. but a deliberate cover-up.
When a crisis is ahead of you, you have two choices: you speak or you become an accomplice to the coverup. I always choose something to say.
– Carmen Yulín Cruz (@CarmenYulinCruz) May 30, 2018
Given a stake, Mayor Cruz and others will undoubtedly have more to say about this "cover-up". – if that's the right word – in the coming days and weeks.
Was the lack of interest in an accurate death a product of racism in the Trump administration? Was it an attempt to pay the Puerto Ricans no funeral costs and deaths? There are already calls for an inquiry into the congress. Last but not least, this new study highlights the loss and suffering of Puerto Ricans after the storm, as well as the cost of Trump's arrogance and incompetence. While he was throwing paper towels, Americans were dying.
And now, as I write this in the mountains of Puerto Rico, where vines grow on abandoned houses and many roads are still impassable, the sky darkens again and the wind opens. The hurricane season starts on 1 June.