A new study finds that nearly 6,000 people died in the humanitarian crisis that unfolded in Puerto Rico following last year’s back-to-back hurricanes.
The study, which was published by the New England Journal of Medicine, conducted a poll of more than 3,000 randomly selected households in Puerto Rico between September and December of 2017, asking respondents about deaths in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Researchers found that while there were 4,645 deaths that would not have otherwise occurred in Puerto Rico absent the hurricanes and resulting humanitarian crisis, there was an approximate total of 5,740 deaths when accounting for people who died alone. The second figure not only outpaces the original estimated death toll of 64 people, but is more than twice as high as the number of New Yorkers killed on September 11, 2001 (2,753 deaths). When accounting for everyone who died on 9/11 (2,983 people), the number of deaths in Puerto Rico is nearly twice as high.
“Our results indicate that the official death count of 64 is a substantial underestimate of the true burden of mortality after Hurricane Maria,” researchers wrote. “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.”
Despite the alarming number of people killed in Puerto Rico, the government’s response was not proportional in comparison to 9/11. President George W. Bush launched the “War on Terror” following the attacks, in which U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban for refusing to give up al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in addition to Iraq (despite Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein having no ties to al-Qaeda). Brown University’s “Cost of War” project estimates the post-9/11 wars will rack up more than $5 trillion in costs to U.S. taxpayers when accounting for future obligations.
President Trump’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico was nowhere near as robust. Despite approximately 400,000 Puerto Ricans living without electricity more than five months after the storms hit (a recent ABC News report estimates there are currently still 13,000 people without power on the island), Trump still gave his administration a “10 out of 10” in its response to Puerto Rico in October of 2017. Trump’s self-evaluation came at approximately the same time as doctors made headlines for using cellphone flashlights to conduct surgeries.
A photo of Trump tossing paper towels to struggling Americans became the defining image of the Trump administration’s disaster relief efforts on the U.S. territory. FEMA cut off water provisions to Puerto Rico in January, despite 76,000 residents still not having access to clean water. While Congress allocated $4.9 billion for Puerto Rico relief, the money was classified as a loan, meaning residents the financially strained U.S. territory will now shoulder yet another burden.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting an active Atlantic hurricane season in 2018, which begins officially on June 1. According to NOAA, there is a 70 percent chance of 10 to 16 named storms this year, including one to four major hurricanes (category 3 and above).
Jake Shepherd is a freelance writer from Cleveland, Ohio. He enjoys poring through financial disclosure statements, spirited debate, and good scotch. He remains eternally optimistic about the Browns. Email him at jake.d.shepherd.21 (at) hotmail (dot) com.