On Trump’s critique of Maria’s death toll

By now, most people, including especially those concerned about the aftermath of Hurricane Florence on the East Coast, have noticed that President Donald Trump has called the federal government’s efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria a successful campaign. To reach his conclusion, he needed to clobber a study out of George Washington University.


Puerto Rico in November 2017 (cestes001 / iStock)

Researchers at GWU have been inundated with interview requests from media outlets ever since. Their study—which increases the official estimate of the death toll from the hurricane from 64 to 2,975—puts a bad taste in the mouth of everyone who would want to tout this as a success.

“The job that FEMA and law enforcement and everybody did, working along with the Governor in Puerto Rico, I think was tremendous,” NPR quoted Mr Trump as saying in a lengthy answer that reiterated his criticisms of the island’s pre-storm electric grid, credit problems, and geography. “I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible, unsung success.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the president has called into question the scientific rigor of the study but that he has offered, so far, no evidence to support his critique. Researchers, on the other hand, went through a rigorous peer review process, including scientists at Johns Hopkins University, who reviewed the science behind the study.

Mr Trump claims the study counted people who would have died from old age, for example. But researchers say their mathematical methods took into account what would have been the expected mortality from all non-hurricane causes in the months following Maria.

“We stand by the science underlying our study which found there were an estimated 2,975 excess deaths in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria,” the university wrote in a statement following the president’s critique.

Researchers at GWU, the statement continued, “in collaboration with scientists at the University of Puerto Rico Graduate School of Public Health analyzed mortality, via use of death certificates and related information, from September 2017 through the end of February 2018. Using a state-of-the-art mathematical model, the team compared the total number of deaths during that time to the expected number based on historical patterns as well as age, sex, socioeconomic status, and migration from the island.”

Other aspects that indicate a poor federal response

Nine days after Maria, FEMA had approved $6.2 million in assistance for its victims, compared to $141.8 million to victims of Harvey nine days after it struck. There was also less food and water delivered to Puerto Rico and 20,000 fewer people deployed in the Maria response in the same time period compared to Harvey, according to Politico.

The General Accounting Office also shows in a report that FEMA had delivered four generators to the island prior to the storm, compared to 35 delivered to Texas prior to Harvey.

So while Mr Trump criticizes the science behind the escalation of the death toll without any evidence to support his claims, we criticize his characterization of the response in Puerto Rico and offer government-backed and independent press reports to support ours.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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