Home/Daniel Larison/Trump’s Pathetic Denial of Puerto Rico’s Massive Loss of Life

Trump’s Pathetic Denial of Puerto Rico’s Massive Loss of Life

A study commissioned by the Puerto Rican government estimated last month that 2,975 people died from Hurricane Maria and its aftermath:

A long-awaited analysis of Hurricane Maria’s deadly sweep through Puerto Rico prompted the government on Tuesday to sharply increase the official death toll. The government now estimates that 2,975 people died as a result of the disaster and its effects, which unfolded over months.

The new assessment is many times greater than the previous official tally of 64, which was not revised for nearly a year despite convincing evidence that the official death certificates failed to take full account of the fatal and often long-range impacts from the storm across the island.

The revision came just hours after the release of a new assessment of excess deaths in the roughly six months after the storm, conducted at the government’s request by researchers at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. Their report found that nearly 3,000 more deaths than expected occurred in the wake of the storm — 22 percent more than the number of deaths that normally might have occurred in that period.

The GWU study estimate was somewhat lower than the Harvard study released in May, but both concluded that there had been a huge number of excess deaths that happened following the hurricane. Puerto Rico suffered from a catastrophic hurricane and then suffered again from a woefully inadequate response from all levels of government. It was one of the largest natural disasters in U.S. history, but the resources and attention dedicated to it by the federal government were insufficient all along. It may be that some of these thousands of deaths could not have been prevented given the severe nature of the disaster, but it is very likely that many could have been with a more effective and sustained response. The people of Puerto Rico were failed by their government, and there needs to be a thorough investigation into how and why that failure occurred. That failure happened on Trump’s watch, and he should be held accountable for it.

From the start, the president neglected the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, boasted about how successful the administration’s inadequate efforts were, and dismissed all evidence to the contrary. Now that another study has shown that thousands of lives were lost because of the hurricane and the terrible conditions it created on the island, the president has predictably resorted to the most petty, disgraceful denials:

Trump cannot grasp that the massive loss of life in Puerto Rico is far more important than his political reputation, and so he has to make all of it about him and his political enemies. He also apparently can’t understand that the greatest loss of life from natural disasters can sometimes take place after the initial event. The official death toll in Puerto Rico remained artificially low for such a long time because the government there would not certify a death until the body had been seen by the medical examiner, and for the thousands of victims that was not possible when transportation and communications around the island had been made difficult or impossible by storm damage. Many people were losing their lives on account of the shortages in medicine, loss of power, lack of clean drinking water, heat, and lack of medical care. Those deaths weren’t being registered, but they happened nonetheless, and they happened as a result of the hurricane. Even before these studies were released, there were reports of more than 900 deaths following the hurricane. As it turned out, the loss of life was far worse.

Because the official death toll was a low number, Trump seized on it as vindication. He clings to it even now because he still thinks that the inadequate federal response was an “unsung success,” as he said earlier this week. As usual, he is incapable of acknowledging and taking responsibility for the government’s failures that took place under him, and so he tells stupid, easily refuted lies instead.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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