By Will Racke
The Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria is facing a fresh round of criticism following the May 29 publication of a Harvard study that says the death toll in Puerto Rico might be as many as 70 times higher than the official tally.
Commentators have seized on one number from the study: 4,645.
The number is an estimate of the total additional deaths in Puerto Rico in the months after Maria made landfall on Sept. 20. Nearly every prominent news outlet has reported the stunning figure as a hard statistical fact, despite strong caveats from the authors of the Harvard study themselves about the imprecision of the estimate.
News coverage of the study has provided fodder for the professional commentariat, who have used it to excoriate the federal government, and President Donald Trump in particular, for supposed indifference to the devastated island.
A non-exhaustive survey of opinion and “analysis” headlines illustrates the national reaction:
- “Puerto Rico will be an enduring stain on Trump’s presidency” — Gregory Krieg, CNN
- “Trump Failed The Americans Of Puerto Rico” — Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg
- “The Shame in Puerto Rico,” — The New York Times Editorial Board
- “Trump is responsible for Puerto Rico” — Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post
- “On Trump’s watch, the single most deadly natural disaster in modern America” — Juliette Kayyem, national security analyst, CNN, again
Perhaps predictably, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz has seized the opportunity to reprise her role as Trump’s bete noire in various cable news appearances. Speaking to MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt on Monday, Cruz accused the administration of “total neglect” and implied that Washington’s handling of the crisis in Puerto Rico amounted to a “violation of human rights.”
Congressional Democrats have gotten in on the act, too. Citing the 4,645 figure, 14 Democratic members of the House Committee on Natural Resources sent a letter to the committee’s chair, Republican Rep. Bob Bishop of Utah, asking for a “timely” hearing to investigate, among other things, “the shortcomings of the Trump administration’s response to this disaster.”
For its part, the White House has resorted to hyperbole in defense of its handling of the Maria recovery.
“The federal response once again was at a historic proportion,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Tuesday.
The federal response
The renewed political spin cycle over Maria has once again sucked up most of the oxygen in the national discussion about what really happened after the storm hit Puerto Rico — and why. As a result, the Trump administration’s response to the disaster has largely been evaluated in terms of partisan politics, not in terms of the severity of the storm or the unique challenges of post-disaster recovery on the island.
A disaster response plan from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) shines a light on how the government approached post-Maria recovery, and why Puerto Rico presented such a challenge to disaster relief efforts. The planning document, produced by a FEMA contractor in 2014, was published in March after the open-information website MuckRock obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act request.
An in-depth review of the plan by POLITICO found two general deficiencies that would end up giving FEMA problems in the aftermath of the hurricane. The plan underestimated the scope of damage that a severe storm like Maria would bring to Puerto Rico, and it relied too heavily on local agencies and private sector entities to handle cleanup and restore critical services.
The plan anticipated a Category 4 hurricane and estimated Puerto Rico would shift from disaster response to recovery mode after about a month. As it turned out, Maria was a “high-end” Category 4 storm, and certain locations on the island were whipped by Category 5 winds.
The document also assumed Puerto Rican agencies would be capable of restoring the island’s power and telecommunications systems in a reasonably brief time frame. What really transpired was almost exactly the opposite scenario: Puerto Rico’s already ailing power grid failed almost completely, leaving huge swaths of the island without power in what was the largest blackout in U.S. history.
“The plan truly didn’t contemplate the event the size of Maria,” one person involved with FEMA’s response to Maria reportedly told POLITICO. “They made assumptions that people would be able to do things that they wouldn’t be able to do.”
FEMA’s miscalculations aide, much of the blame for Puerto Rico’s sluggish recovery lies with commonwealth and local governments, according to a disaster relief expert who worked on the ground in Puerto Rico in the three months after Maria’s landfall.
“Frankly, I would fault the Puerto Rican commonwealth government significantly more than the federal response,” he told The Daily Caller News Foundation, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the political aspects of his work.
“[FEMA Administrator] Brock Long has been pretty clear that the federal government is not a first response organization,” he added.
Puerto Rico was woefully unprepared to work within FEMA’s model, which makes state and local agencies as the lead actors in disaster response, added the expert, who has participated in every one of his organization’s major disaster operations since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
“In my time in the field, I haven’t seen the federal government forcing the states [to prepare],” he said. “Typically, the government incentivizes states to be more prepared, but there’s no punitive action taken.”
‘An already overwhelmed system’
As much of the reporting on Puerto Rico’s recovery from Maria has noted, the island’s electric and telecommunications systems were not close to being strong enough to withstand a storm as intense as Maria.
In fact, FEMA’s hurricane response plan anticipated that PREPA — Puerto Rico’s troubled, government-owned electric utility — would run into problems, because many of its transmission lines run over mountainous terrain, making “repair and restoration difficult and lengthy.”
“It is anticipated that infrastructure of essential utilities will be out of service for extended periods of time,” the plan stated.
When the power grid went down, PREPA lacked the capacity to bring it back online. Astonishingly, the utility declined to ask for assistance from mainland utilities that routinely deploy workers to help other states recover from damage caused by natural disasters.
FEMA ultimately tasked the Army Corps of Engineers with repairing Puerto Rico’s entire power grid because of PREPA’s financial and operational mismanagement, which had left the utility without replacement parts and other critical supplies. Even that was not enough to quickly bring Puerto Rico’s mismanaged grid back to pre-storm condition — More than 50,000 people remained without power more than six months after Maria made landfall.
The state of Puerto Rico’s power and communications systems was reminiscent of Haiti’s after the massive earthquake in 2010, the disaster relief expert told TheDCNF.
“Basic service provision was a challenge for some number of years [before the hurricane],” he said. “Not that different from Haiti, if you go back that far, it just placed a burden on an already overwhelmed system. They were in crisis trying to figure out how to respond.”
About that study …
After the initial burst of coverage and commentary, some media outlets began to examine more closely the Havard study that had prompted a fresh round of outrage at the Trump administration.
Washington Post fact check editor Glenn Kessler published a detailed examination of study’s methodology on June 1, concluding that most media outlets were sensationalizing a highly speculative death count.
“All too often, the news media grabs onto a number in an academic report and puts it in headlines, ignoring the caveats deep in the report,” he wrote. “Given that this report is based on a survey, with potentially huge margins of error, it should be treated cautiously.”
The Havard study did not arrive at its figures through a verified number of death records. Until last week, that method would have been impossible because the death figures were kept under wraps by the Puerto Rican government, which claimed the death toll from Maria was just 64.
Instead, researchers surveyed about 3,300 randomly selected households across Puerto Rico and asked them how many family members had died as a result of the storm.
Using one number — 38 deaths in those 3,300 households — the researchers then extrapolated a possible range of additional deaths due to Maria, and compared it to the mortality rate from the same time the year before.
The result was anything but a precise death toll, as the authors themselves conceded. With a 95 percent confidence interval, the number of Maria-related deaths ranged between 793 and 8,498, according to the study.
The most widely reported fatality count — 4,645 — was simply the midpoint between the outer limits of the estimated range, the statistical analysis website FiveThirtyEight noted in its own report on the Harvard study.
Under intense pressure from media and federal authorities, Puerto Rico’s department of health finally released on June 1 the long-hidden statistics for monthly deaths on the island. The figures show 1,397 more deaths in the four months after Maria than in the same four months of the prior year.
“The reason this is exploding now is because the commonwealth government sought to suppress accurate reporting [on the death toll],” the disaster relief expert said, referring to the Puerto Rican health department’s refusal to release death figures for more than seven months after the storm.
“That was a deliberate attempt to preserve the tourism industry,” he added. “It had nothing to do with the federal government.”
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