Editorial Race

More Americans Died From Hurricane Maria Than 9/11. Does Anyone Care? (Updated)

Jodi Jacobson

More people were killed by Maria than by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. This time, we can't blame anyone but ourselves.


UPDATE, August 28, 1:24 p.m.: A new study, commissioned by the governor of Puerto Rico and conducted by independent researchers from George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, estimates that between September 2017 and February 2018, at least 2,975 people died from Hurricane Maria and its aftermath.

A day before one of the five most devastating hurricanes in U.S. history hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, President Donald J. Trump sent a tweet telling the people of Puerto Rico, “Be careful, our hearts are with you- will be there to help!” When Hurricane Maria, a nearly category 5 storm, made landfall, Trump tweeted again, telling Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, “We are with you and the people of Puerto Rico. Stay safe!”

The people of Puerto Rico did not “stay safe” and “we” were not—and still are not—”with” them.

A new study shows that, even by conservative estimates, more people were killed by Maria than those who died during the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The 3.5 million Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, a fact not understood by more than half the U.S. stateside population, according to a poll from September 2017. Still, the Trump administration and majority-GOP Congress treated post-Maria Puerto Rico with malignant neglect, delivering help expeditiously to the parts of Louisiana and Texas hit hard by Hurricane Irma earlier that month while failing to prepare for or launch an effective response to the two-hurricane punch delivered to Puerto Rico. As the 2018 hurricane season fast approaches, Puerto Rico remains in dire straits. Ultimately, however, the blame for the death and destruction in Puerto Rico really lies with all of us, their fellow Americans.

As of last December, the “official” death count was 64. But even the earliest reporting post-hurricane made clear far more people had died or would die. Maria lacerated the island with wind and rain for 30 hours, razing whole communities to the ground and decimating electrical grids and water supplies. “It was as if a 50- to 60-mile-wide tornado raged across Puerto Rico, like a buzz saw,” Jeff Weber, a meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Vox. Maria was, according to specialists, not just a disaster but a “catastrophic event,” during which Tricia Wachtendorf, a professor of sociology at the University of Delaware who studies disaster relief, told the Atlantic, “most, if not all, of the built environment is destroyed.”

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Independent investigations conducted in late fall 2017 put the death toll in excess of 1,000 people. Puerto Ricans from the diaspora who returned to help told Rewire.News they knew within a couple of weeks that well over 1,000 people had died. Now, a study funded in part by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests at least 70 times the official number of deaths occurred. Based on extensive survey data collected by a team of researchers, the Harvard analysis concludes that, conservatively, 4,645 and perhaps more than 5,000 deaths in Puerto Rico from September 20 through December 31, 2017 can be attributed to Maria. The number of U.S. citizens killed in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria therefore exceeds by at least 1,600 those killed on September 11, 2001, and is easily twice the number killed during Katrina. The Harvard study concludes it was the “inattention of the U.S. government to the frail infrastructure of Puerto Rico” that is in large part to blame. 

Despite the Twitter promises and the knowledge that a massive storm was on its way and following close behind Hurricane Irma, the Trump administration did next to nothing to prepare. It failed to put in place essential resources—food, water, medical supplies, temporary shelter, public health supplies and personnel, hospital ships, the Navy, and the Air Force—needed not only to save lives and ensure a rapid and effective response to the impending and largely predictable crisis, but to ensure even a modicum of post-trauma dignity for survivors.

Speaking to Rewire.News from Humacao, where she is volunteering with ReconstruyeQ, a diaspora-organized volunteer relief effort, Aimee Thorne-Thomsen, whose family ties in Puerto Rico go back over 150 years, said: “I am working on a house right now, on the southeast part of the island, and standing here I can clearly see the path taken by the hurricane nine months later. It is clear neither the [Trump] administration nor the governor of Puerto Rico was prepared for this event. Granted Irma had hit just the week before, but it is clear that the government had not prepared beforehand and was not equipped to cope afterwards. I am hearing this from residents, from the leadership of towns, from mayors, in places that still have no power, where there is still no running water, and where there is still food insecurity.”

“It is clear they did not have a good understanding of what would be needed after the hurricane struck and systems were completely overwhelmed in every way possible,” said Thorne-Thomsen, who is the vice president for strategic partnerships at Advocates for Youth in D.C. and a member of the ReconstruyeQ steering committee.

In fact, it wasn’t until five days after Maria hit that the White House even held a meeting about Puerto Rico in the situation room, though in a predictable about-face from the earlier offers of help, Trump also tweeted blaming Puerto Rico for not doing “great” like Louisiana and Texas.” Those two states, however, benefited from what was later confirmed by Politico’s review of public documents to be a massive double standard.

Within six days of Hurricane Harvey, U.S. Northern Command had deployed 73 helicopters over Houston, which are critical for saving victims and delivering emergency supplies. It took at least three weeks after Maria before it had more than 70 helicopters flying above Puerto Rico.

Nine days after the respective hurricanes, FEMA had approved $141.8 million in individual assistance to Harvey victims, versus just $6.2 million for Maria victims.

During the first nine days after Harvey, FEMA provided 5.1 million meals, 4.5 million liters of water and over 20,000 tarps to Houston; but in the same period, it delivered just 1.6 million meals, 2.8 million liters of water and roughly 5,000 tarps to Puerto Rico.

Nine days after Harvey, the federal government had 30,000 personnel in the Houston region, compared with 10,000 at the same point after Maria.

It took just 10 days for FEMA to approve permanent disaster work for Texas, compared with 43 days for Puerto Rico.

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

Thirteen days after the storm, Trump did go to Puerto Rico. He brought help in the form of … paper towels; spent the better part of a photo op lauding himself and his staff for their “great job”; invited local officials to praise him profusely; and declared, firmly and without any evidence, that unlike Katrina where “tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people… died,” only 16 people in Puerto Rico had died as a result of Maria. After staying about as long as it takes to play a round of golf, he was gone. Neither he nor his administration was “there to help” then, and they have utterly failed to meet the needs of those on the island since, leaving millions of people in crisis.

The Trump administration was, however, efficient in one area: doling out money to political supporters. Relatively soon after the storm hit, a $300 million contract was granted to a two-person Montana company with no relevant experience to “repair and reconstruct large portions of the island’s electrical infrastructure.” The company was linked to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, and one of the employees was his son.

The majority of deaths and injuries in a major storm do not occur during the storm itself, but in the aftermath, from the storm surges, the downed lines, the lack of food and water, insufficient public health resources, the lack of health professionals and essential medicines. These are known outcomes. You can plan for this. Disaster relief agencies, like FEMA, exist for just this reason. To be prepared.

The initial insistence by Trump that only 16 people died in Puerto Rico was at best always a falsehood born of ignorance, and a way for him to burnish his image. Anyone responsible and in charge (and I mean, actually responsible and in charge) would have and should have known that there could be no immediate and accurate count of how many people had drowned, been electrocuted, had heart attacks, been gravely injured, died for lack of necessary medications, or left to die in hospitals and clinics without power. There was not even an accurate assessment at the time of how many people were living in dire conditions and in urgent need of help, never mind of those who had died. 

The later count of 64 deaths also was deliberately misleading because it was not clarified by authorities that Puerto Rico’s process of recording deaths is antiquated and underfunded. Neither the governor of Puerto Rico nor FEMA allocated enough resources to ensure bodies were being collected, accurate counts made, deaths recorded accurately, or death certificates clearly processed. 

If the Trump administration had wanted to understand what happened in Puerto Rico, it would have taken action long ago. Because the death toll in any natural disaster only becomes clear over time, you want to encourage deliberate investigation. If you were paying any attention to non-Fox news, you heard and read the reports of bodies piling up throughout the island, in homes, in hospitals, in the street. Some made it to morgues and sat there, uncounted. Others never made it to morgues.

In a democratic and transparent society, one that takes care of its people and strives to learn from mistakes, you want to know how exactly people were affected. You want to preserve evidence, you would want to give broken families a sense of closure and a chance to grieve. You would want to understand how many people were living in dire conditions and in urgent need of immediate help so you could prevent further deaths and injuries and restore normalcy as soon as possible, as a matter of human decency, never mind the role of government itself. You would want to know what happened so you could do everything in your power to prevent or mitigate future tragedies.

Even if we stipulate that Trump is too ignorant or too lazy to grasp these things, the people around him should not have been. But it was the first rule of P.R.—public relations—about which Trump and his cabinet were concerned, not the deaths, displacement, and suffering of the people from P.R., the U.S. territory. Getting the facts straight is not a high priority for this administration, to say the least. The facts would ruin the plot-line Trump was so clearly already writing, one in which at first Puerto Rico wasn’t that bad off because Donald Trump was president; another in which Puerto Rico was too lazy to take care of itself; and a third in which the “real threats” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were children crossing the U.S. border, not the preventable deaths of thousands of U.S. citizens due to the Trump administration’s criminal incompetence.

Puerto Rico is in theory an autonomous territory of the United States. But its autonomy is something of a fiction, and its relationship to the United States is one more of a colony than a state. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but can’t vote in presidential elections. There is a legislature and a governor, but the current governor, Ricardo Rosselló, who favors statehood for Puerto Rico, was forced by circumstances and history to be supplicant to Trump, not to challenge him, something that was clear in almost every television appearance he made with Trump. One Puerto Rican activist, who asked to remain anonymous, told Rewire.News that when you see the governor speaking, appearing “insecure, afraid, it’s because without power of our own, we are still so dependent on the federal government, especially in situations like recovery from Maria.”

By contrast, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who was outspoken after the hurricane and criticized the slow response by the Trump administration, found herself on the receiving end of Trump’s attacks. But “Carmen was more successful in demanding and getting more help and stepping outside traditional channels to get assistance because she was not afraid to speak out,” said the activist. “She held FEMA accountable; she did not downplay the damage, suffering, or numbers.”

Right now it is the volunteer members of the Puerto Rican diaspora living in the contiguous United States and traveling home who are doing more than any of us to help repair the island. Lisbeth Melendez Rivera, a D.C. resident and chair of the ReconstruyeQ steering committee, told Rewire.News, “I believe that the efforts of the diaspora in Puerto Rico are creating solutions to long-held problems even when small in scale. We hope the government of the island notices these efforts and continues to support the presence of the diaspora in the reconstruction.”

Reconstruction is a monumental task. Because the Trump administration failed to prepare or to act, 11 percent of the island still remains without power and thousands of homes remain decimated. As long after the devastation as January, at least a third of the island had no power. From January onward, large swaths of the island gained and then lost power at least twice due to the ineptitude of the major contractor hired to restore the power grid. So, as of now, Puerto Rico has not recovered and is not ready for the next hurricane season, which starts this Friday, June 1.

But the roots of this disaster go back further than the Trump administration’s criminal neglect. Years of focus on privatization, fiscal mismanagement, and malfeasance left Puerto Rico billions of dollars in debt. The “solution” created jointly in 2016 by the Obama administration and the GOP-controlled Congress was an austerity package that steeply undercut wages and public investment. As Michelle Chen wrote in the Nation in June 2017, “Puerto Rico illustrates the most extreme form of neoliberal restructuring that has been imposed on many US cities following the recession. Detroit was similarly devastated by what University of California–Berkeley’s Haas Institute calls ‘financial governance,’ a modern-day plutocracy that drives ‘the systemic political neglect of entire groups of people and places.’”

In this instance, however, electoral politics and racism clearly play a role. Trump was and is focused on “winning” and both Louisiana and Texas are key states. He’s also a white supremacist, and known to discriminate openly against people of color. In fact, Detroit’s situation is more than coincidentally related to Puerto Rico, as is Flint, as is New Orleans, as are any number of majority communities of color across the United States, from which tax dollars flow out but are rarely reinvested in return, where infrastructure is crumbling, environmental problems flourish, and people are one disaster away from near annihilation. The key difference going forward may be that so many Puerto Ricans have now resettled in states like Florida that they now have become a potentially powerful voting bloc, which may have repercussions in November and beyond.

Every year homage is paid to those who died in the terrorist attacks of September 11. Buildings and infrastructure have been rebuilt, museums and monuments erected. Costly and unnecessary wars were launched. Every year the nation mourns. Yet while more people died in Puerto Rico last year, our collective response to the deaths in both cases could not be more different. Climate change made these hurricanes more deadly and they will become more deadly still, with grossly disproportionate affects on the poor and communities of color. In Maria’s wake, we don’t have any terrorists to demonize or to “other” or to fear. We only have ourselves to reflect upon in the mirror and ask why we have not done more to hold ourselves and our own government accountable for the lives of our fellow citizens, now and in the future.

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