The official death toll in Puerto Rico in the months after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in September is much higher than the territorial government led us to believe.
In a Congressional request for additional federal aid for the territory, Puerto Rico officials cited a figure that was more than 20 times higher than the previously announced death total of 64.
“According to initial reports, 64 lives were lost,” the report, titled “Transformation and Innovation in the Wake of Devastation,” stated. “That estimate was later revised to 1,427.”
In addition to that new figure, the government of Puerto Rico is requesting $139 billion in additional aid.
But the “announcement” of the new death toll wasn’t really an announcement at all — rather, it came about and was only discussed within this document. No other publications or statements from Puerto Rico officials previously cited this number.
The government itself was widely criticized for standing firm on using the “official” death toll number of 64 for so long. Other estimates of the death toll on the island in the months after Hurricane Maria suggested the number was in the thousands, not merely the dozens that Puerto Rico said had perished.
President Donald Trump, in the weeks after the hurricane happened, cited the low death count totals as proof that his administration had done a great job in handling the aftermath of the disaster. He even gave his administration a 10-out-of-10 rating for how well they responded.
That rating was questionable, at best, and an outright lie at worst. The response was inadequate for many reasons, not only because thousands died in the following months, but also because of how the administration left Puerto Rico behind to fend for itself when more help was needed.
Indeed, Trump’s Federal Emergency Management Agency left Puerto Rico in January with the island still in need of dire repairs (a third of it was still without power at the time of FEMA’s departure).
Both the federal government and the government of Puerto Rico have failed the citizens living there. In the latter's case, the failure was due to officials being dishonest and quiet about the actual death toll for so long.
The territorial government should have been honest with the people from the get-go. Perhaps then, the administration would have acted with more urgency to help the people there — although it’s possible Trump still would have responded the same inadequate way that he did, given other comments and sentiments he has expressed about the island since.
Banner/thumbnail image credit: Lucas Jackson/Reuters