One year ago, on 16 September 2017, Hurricane Maria was formed in the mid-Atlantic. On 20 September, it barrelled into the island of Puerto Rico, causing untold devastation. For eleven months, despite overwhelming evidence that the storm had cost many more lives, the official death toll remained at 64.
At the end of August, the death toll from Hurricane Maria was finally officially raised to 2,975 – meaning that more American citizens died in that storm and its aftermath than in the twin towers on 9/11. If that count holds, Maria will have been one of the deadliest US hurricanes in more than a century.
But it gets worse. As Puerto Rico’s governor Ricardo Rosselló admits, the new figure, which is based on a study by researchers at George Washington University, is still an estimate. If anything, it’s a lowball. The damage Maria did to the island’s infrastructure was so severe, and the assistance provided by the federal government so insufficient, that it may be years before the true human cost of the storm is known for sure.
Some estimates of the death toll are higher still. One study in May in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated the death toll at 4,645 – which would be more than were killed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and almost as many thought to have died in America’s worst ever natural disaster, the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, which is estimated to have killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people – and its authors wrote that even that is likely an underestimate.
Charles Venator, an associate professor in political science and Caribbean and Latin American studies at the University of Connecticut, tells me he believes the storm may eventually be found to have killed as many as 9,000 people, maybe even more. “Some friends at the medical school put the number closer to 10,000 deaths,” he tells me.
If that last figure is close to true, it would likely make Hurricane Maria the single most deadly natural disaster in American history.
After the storm, in a particularly shameful episode for the American presidency, Donald Trump decided to pick a fight with the mayor of San Juan after she made a heartfelt appeal for help, and tweeted that Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them”.
When he eventually visited the island, 13 days after the storm, all he did was toss paper towels into the crowd, and spent the following week congratulating himself for doing, essentially, nothing. Parts of the island remained without electricity or drinking water for months. Power was only fully restored this August.
“Everybody around this table and everybody watching can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico,” he said in a press conference after his visit in which he compared hurricane Maria to “a real catastrophe like hurricane Katrina.” The death toll from Katrina was 1,833, which the official figures now finally confirmed by the Puerto Rican governor’s office show was in fact considerably lower than that caused by Maria.
Compounding incompetence with malice, Trump, having taken credit for the inaccurately low death toll, appears to now refuse to accept the higher figure at all.
On Thursday, he tweeted that the new figure “was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics.” To add insult to injury, he finished: “I love Puerto Rico!”
On Friday, he continued his tweetstorm:
“‘When Trump visited the island territory last October, OFFICIALS told him in a briefing 16 PEOPLE had died from Maria.’ The Washington Post. Over many months it went to 64 PEOPLE. Then, like magic, “3000 PEOPLE KILLED.” They hired….”
He continued in a follow-up tweet: “….GWU Research to tell them how many people had died in Puerto Rico (how would they not know this?). This method was never done with previous hurricanes because other jurisdictions know how many people were killed. FIFTY TIMES LAST ORIGINAL NUMBER – NO WAY!”
It is entirely remarkable that such a catastrophe could kill so many American citizens and receive so little attention. Partly, that’s because the official death toll stayed so low for so long, allowed Trump to plausibly deny its scale, and possibly deny the island help that could have saved lives.
What could possibly have possessed the governor’s office to wait so long before raising it? Even as soon as October 2017, it was clear on the ground that the actual death toll was going to be much higher than the official figure indicated. But it was admittedly difficult to put a number on it: as Buzzfeed News reported at the time, crematoria, lacking government guidance, were burning the bodies before they could be counted by officials.
Ricardo Rosselló, the governor of the island, had been in office for less than a year when Maria struck. He is the scion of a political dynasty: his father was elected as the island’s governor in 1992 and again in 1996, and like his father, Rosselló heads the New Progressive Party, which is nominally affiliated with the Democrats. When he followed in his father’s footsteps and became governor in January 2017, at the same time as Trump entered the White House, he was just 37 years old.
“This seems like an example of a young inexperienced Governor’s incompetence in dealing with these kinds of social-political issues,” Carlos Figueroa, an assistant professor of politics at Ithaca College who studies Puerto Rican politics, tells me when I ask what could possibly have been behind the 11-month delay. “There was no real urgency to help Puerto Rico residents immediately after the hurricanes from either Trump, or Rosselló,” Figueroa says, describing them as “equally complicit” in the humanitarian crisis that emerged.
“Who knows how many of the 2,975 plus reported dead could have been saved, if not for the dual incompetence of Governor Rosselló and President Trump?,” he adds.
The explanation may be as simple as misjudging how meagre Trump’s response would be. But it is also possible that Rosselló was pressured by the Trump administration to keep the death toll low to avoid embarrassment. His New Progressive Party (NPP) may be affiliated with the Democrats, their economic approach aligns them with the neoliberal wing of the GOP too.
“The NPP is at its core a neo-liberal party that has affiliated with mainland Republicans at times and at other times the Democrats when it suits them,” Figueroa says, citing their support for free market economics, privatisation, and opposition to government regulation and democratic socialist programs. “This may explain the Governor’s almost non-critique of the Trump administration’s post-hurricane actions the last several months.” The governer’s office did not respond to a request for an interview.
After the storm, Hurricane Maria and the enormous human catastrophe that was unfolding in its wake gained appallingly little traction in the American media, which gave many times more screen time across the board to Hurricane Harvey in Texas, as this analysis by FiveThirtyEight shows. It is very possible that isolation and lack of coverage may also partially explain why Rosselló was unwilling to embarrass the Trump administration and raise the death count sooner. He may have feared – with good reason – that the Trump administration might be vicious enough to retaliate to such an embarrassment by withholding even the inadequate relief funds Congress has allocated to Puerto Rico in this year’s budget. Certainly, Trump’s reaction to the new official figure shows that such fears would not have been unfounded.
He may also believe himself to be playing a longer game to achieve statehood. He is working hard to lobby in favour of a bill Puerto Rico’s (non-voting) representative in Congress introduced in June which aims to make the island America’s 51st state. Though in the current political climate it is hard to see that as anything other than a pipedream, the idea deserves real support.
Notwithstanding whatever drove Rosselló to keep the official death toll so low for so long, one thing is clear: compared to hurricane Harvey, which struck Texas the week before, the Trump administration’s response to Maria was dismal.
A comprehensive investigation from Politico earlier this year showed the comparison in damning terms: it took ten days for FEMA to approve permanent disaster work after Harvey compared to 43 after Maria; in the nine days after each storm struck the federal government sent three times as many personnel to Houston as they did to Puerto Rico.
It is unclear whether Trump even realised that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. At the time he he said that “the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort … will be funded,” seemingly ignorant of the fact that, as president, he is the head of the government of Puerto Rico.
Of course, the elephant in the room here is that Trump probably treated Puerto Rico differently because its population is Hispanic. But that might not have mattered so much if not for Puerto Rico’s lack of political rights and representation. As a US territory, the more than three million people who live there are American citizens – but since Puerto Rico has been consistently denied statehood its inhabitants are denied the right to vote for the president who oversees the federal response to their emergencies.
The island has been in a state of economic crisis for years, and there is no incentive for Congress or the White House to fix it. Puerto Rico’s three million inhabitants are citizens by birthright but the island has no representatives in Washington, so they aren’t a political constituency. In January, Florida governor Rick Scott announced that his state alone had resettled almost 300,000 refugees from Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Maria, equivalent to more than half the population of Vermont.
It is almost impossible to imagine that such a calamity would occur today in a state with votes in Congress or the electoral college, and it is entirely impossible to imagine it attracting so little attention or care from politicians or the media. The outrage if an equivalent disaster had struck, say, Iowa – which has a similar sized population to Puerto Rico but enjoys particularly lavish attention from politicians as it is an early presidential primary state – would have been phenomenal. Politically unrealistic as it may be, Puerto Rico should have statehood, and politicians of conscience should support Rosselló and his efforts in Congress.
It is clear that Hurricane Maria represents one of the most shoddy and shameful episodes in modern American history – and that’s a pretty crowded field. After the storm Trump made a point of taking credit for the low death count; now that it’s clear that count was spectacularly wrong, he should be made to own the catastrophe.