The monthslong uncertainty surrounding the death toll from Hurricane Maria highlights the confounding limitations of using fatalities to gauge the true impact of a disaster.
Even if the death count in Puerto Rico had in fact stood at 64, the early estimate put out by the Puerto Rican government, that number would say nothing about the prolonged suffering of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens who were left without electricity for months after the hurricane. Or about those who struggled to access medical care and clean water long after the storm subsided.
Still, many people were rightfully stunned by survey results published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine that found the Sept. 20 storm’s death toll could be 70 times the official estimate.
Anywhere between 793 and 8,498 people may have died in the hurricane and its aftermath, with the midpoint estimated at 4,645 possible deaths, according to the team led by Harvard researchers. Among the households surveyed, one-third of the deaths reported were attributed to delays in accessing medical care after the storm.
On Friday, Puerto Rican health officials released new data showing that 1,397 additional deaths occurred on the island in the months after Hurricane Maria than in the same period the previous year.
That astonishing figure approaches the 1,833 people who died after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This harsh reality belies President Donald Trump’s early suggestion that Hurricane Maria did not rival Katrina in terms of qualifying as “a real catastrophe.”
A low death toll would not have excused the U.S. government’s slow response to the disaster, which engulfed the U.S. territory that is home to 3.4 million Americans.
As the storm neared the island, federal officials should have known Puerto Rico would need more assistance, not less, due to its combination of local government debt and pre-existing infrastructure gaps. Yet Trump blamed Puerto Rican officials for the delays and suffering their people endured after the storm.
Local government missteps, including a questionable electrical-repair contract, certainly did not help. But the deeper question remains why an island populated with millions of U.S. citizens had such substandard infrastructure in the first place — and what the U.S. government plans to do about it now.
“I think with Puerto Rico, it just highlights that it is a bit of a forgotten place, both in terms of political and popular attention and the existing condition of the infrastructure,” said Scott Miles, a research scientist in the University of Washington’s department of Human Centered Design and Engineering.
Hurricane season is descending once again on the Caribbean, while Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover. Thousands on the island remain without power, a testament to Maria’s long-lasting effects and the island’s poverty.
Members of Congress must focus on directing aid to Puerto Rico to prepare it for another potentially damaging season of storms. Congress should also hold hearings on the adequacy of the federal response and whether more could have been done to prevent unnecessary deaths.
Whether Hurricane Maria killed a few dozen Americans or 4,600 after it slammed into Puerto Rico last year, the U.S. government’s inefficient response should go down in history as shameful episode that must not be repeated.
— The Seattle Times