The Truth About Hurricane Maria

lunes, 24 de septiembre de 2018


By Mary Anastasia O'Grady

How many Puerto Ricans died from Hurricane Maria? A study published by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University found that from September 2017 through this February there were an estimated 2,975 “excess mortalities” in the commonwealth-fatalities which, the study’s authors conclude, might not have occurred if not for Maria, which hit Sept. 20, and Hurricane Irma three weeks earlier.

President Trump pushed back, tweeting last week that “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” and that when he visited soon after Maria, the toll was between six and 18.

Cue the outrage from Democrats, journalists, late-night hosts and Puerto Rico’s political class. Mr. Trump’s tweet was described as “sickening” and “falsely” denying the death toll. CNN’s Jake Tapper, in a segment titled “Fact Check: Trump’s false claim on PR deaths,” rambled for four minutes about how the president’s statement was “a lie.”

As evidence, Mr. Tapper cited an endorsement of the study’s findings by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who is widely known to have national political aspirations in the Democratic Party. Mr. Tapper threw in comments from a few Republicans, who, ever vigilant about the Puerto Rican vote along Florida’s I-4 corridor, ran scared from Mr. Trump’s tweet.

Absent from most of the reporting has been any serious discussion of the difference between the findings of the study and Mr. Trump’s observations during his trip to the island to survey hurricane damage. This is worth trying to understand, though not for those who want to use dead Puerto Ricans as a political tool.

John Morales, chief meteorologist at WTVJ, Miami’s NBC affiliate, handled the statistical questions around the wide range of death-toll estimates apolitically in an Aug. 28 essay posted on the station’s website. He did not dispute the increase in fatalities in the months after the hurricanes. His contribution to the debate revolves around the limitations of statistical modeling and the importance of comparing apples with apples.

Mr. Morales cited other studies that have tried to put a number on post-storm deaths. He noted that the estimates vary widely because the methodology is not always the same and researchers choose a variety of time frames. Even within studies there is a wide range of possible deaths attributable to the storms and “the large range denotes a high degree of uncertainty.”

The other problem is that “hurricane fatalities are not customarily counted this way,” Mr. Morales wrote. “The National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center count only direct deaths-those that can be attributed to the effects of the weather like flood drownings or flying debris, for example.”

Weather experts “also look at and separately list indirect deaths, like automobile accidents, electrocutions, and carbon monoxide poisonings from power generators, to name a few,” and “emergency management agencies follow the same model.” But officials from these agencies are “normally the ones briefing the politicians,” so that, “the politicians are used to counting deaths just like the National Weather Service does.”

Whether “excess mortality” studies are “the right way to count the dead” is not the issue, Mr. Morales observed. What matters is that they are “not available for most hurricane disasters” so there is no way to compare the findings with other similar events.

The attack on Mr. Trump is a disservice to Puerto Ricans because it helps island politicians dodge their own responsibility for the loss of life. The failure of medical equipment due to power outages, for example, may have been one cause of numerous post-storm deaths. But as Mary Williams Walsh detailed in a New York Times story in February 2016, titled “How Free Electricity Helped Dig $9 Billion Hole in Puerto Rico,” island officials mismanaged the power company for years, which left the grid highly vulnerable when the storm hit.
In fact, local government was thoroughly unprepared for Maria. According to the George Washington University study, “neither the Department of Public Safety nor the Central Communications Office in the Governor’s Office had written crisis and emergency risk communication plans in place.” The Health Department’s Office of Emergency Preparedness and Response “had an outdated emergency plan.”

What’s more, “agency emergency plans that were in place were not designed for greater than Category 1 hurricanes, and risk messages conveyed to the public in preparedness campaigns were reported by key leaders to inadequately prepare communities for a catastrophic disaster.” The Federal Emergency Management Agency had a local office on the island, manned by Puerto Ricans. They too were unprepared, as I explained in an Oct. 2, 2017, column.

If there is anything despicable about all this, it’s not Mr. Trump’s tweet. Rather it’s the media’s zeal to use the body count for political gain.

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