Editorial: Maria’s deadly impact on Puerto Rico deserves more attention


Here it is, the beginning of the 2018 hurricane season, and we still haven’t made a reckoning of the real damage that last year’s Hurricane Maria inflicted on Puerto Rico.

Thanks, however, to a Harvard University study published Tuesday, we’re getting closer to one. Researchers determined that in the three months after Maria hit on Sept. 20, there were 4,645 “excess deaths.” That’s 70 times greater than the official, but absurdly low, death count of 64 reported by the island’s Department of Public Safety on Dec. 29.

The deaths were mainly from a lack of medical care in the weeks after the storm — what happens when you have no electricity, when roads are blocked, when hospitals are closed or overcrowded.

This is a highly credible study. The researchers surveyed 3,299 randomly selected households on the island, asking whether people knew of deaths in their barrio, or neighborhood. They compared the results to official death statistics from 2016. It’s a well-accepted technique, and they made their investigative methods and findings public in the esteemed New England Journal of Medicine other researchers can check their work with their own investigations.

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The Trump administration has been silent about the study’s findings as of this writing. That’s shocking, yet in line with President Trump’s seemingly dismissive attitude when he visited the storm-torn island on Oct. 3 and said officials should be “proud” of the then-low death count of 16 — as opposed to “a real catastrophe like Katrina” — and tossed paper towels into the crowd like so many basketball free throws.

But catastrophes don’t get much more real than Maria.

The Harvard numbers (which are “likely conservative,” the authors say) would make this the deadliest natural disaster to hit U.S. soil in 100 years, with a mortality rate twice that of Hurricane Katrina’s in 2005. The only other disaster with a higher death count is the Galveston hurricane of 1900, when between 6,000 and 12,000 people died.

Had this Category 5 hit the continental United States, you can bet the outcome would have been different. Just days ago, in fact, Politico magazine published the results of an extensive investigation and affirmed the views of disaster-recovery experts that FEMA and the Trump administration exerted a faster and, initially greater, effort in Texas after Hurricane Harvey hit in October, than it did in Puerto Rico after Maria, even though the damage in Puerto Rico exceeded that in Houston.

For example, the military sent 73 helicopters — critical for saving victims and delivering emergency supplies to Houston — within six days of Harvey; it took at least three weeks for 70 helicopters to fly above Puerto Rico. Nine days after the respective hurricanes, FEMA had approved $141.8 million in individual assistance to Harvey victims, vs. $6.2 million for Maria victims.

“We have the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. We go anywhere, anytime we want in the world,” retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who led the military’s relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina, told Politico. “And [in Puerto Rico] we didn’t use those assets the way they should have been used.”

Trump visited Houston twice in the first eight days after Harvey, but waited 13 days after Maria to go to Puerto Rico. Trump sent three times as many tweets about Harvey as Maria, and what he did write about Puerto Rico was at times insulting: “They want everything done for them.”

Yes, such greedy, grasping people: On average, Puerto Ricans went 84 days without electricity, 68 days without water and 41 days without cellphone service, the Harvard survey found. Even now, eight months after Maria, Puerto Rico is broken. Almost 12,000 homes and businesses remain without power. Despite an eight-month, $3.8-billion federal effort to end the longest blackout in U.S. history, few expect the newly erected poles and wires to stand up to the inevitable next storm.

The hardships have unleashed an exodus that could reach almost half a million by 2019. At least 56,000 of Puerto Rico’s 3.3 million residents have already resettled in Florida, school enrollments indicate, more than any other state, joining the 1 million Puerto Ricans who were already here.

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Politicians sense their voting potential. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson has visited the island three times since Sept. 20; Gov. Rick Scott, his Republican challenger in November’s election, made his sixth trip there Thursday.

Granted, Puerto Rico was poorly prepared for a catastrophic hurricane before Maria hit, its government in bankruptcy, its power grid decaying over years. But the disaster should have snapped America to attention about the island’s troubles.

It didn’t. The media, obsessed with Trump’s daily dramas, has kept the island’s post-Maria miseries on the periphery. Unlike Texas, with its 38 members of Congress who could clamor for action, Puerto Rico has a lone congressional delegate with no voting power. Half of Americans — and that includes some politicians — don’t even know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, a poll in September showed.

This indifference has lingered for too long, and cost too many lives. It needs to end.



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