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It’s Hurricane Katrina all over again.
Since the election of climate denier Donald Trump, the politicization of major hurricanes—along with a torrent of hysterical news coverage and blame-laying—is back en vogue. During last year’s unusually active hurricane season, the media, Democratic politicians and scientific activists claimed the devastating storms were Trump’s fault even though he had been president for less than a year; some suggested voters in the red states that helped elect Trump deserved to have their property destroyed or even to be killed. (The Washington Post editorial board already this week has blamed Trump for Hurricane Florence).
George W. Bush never politically recovered from the fallout of Katrina in 2005; the Left and NeverTrump are now following that successful playbook against the current Republican president.
That’s why the media and political class continue to rehash Hurricane Maria, which ravaged the island of Puerto Rico just over a year ago. They want this to be Trump’s Katrina. Amid the release of a scientifically questionable report last month that significantly raised the number of deaths attributable to Maria, Trump is again on the defensive about his culpability in the tragedy. In two tweets Thursday morning, Trump rejected the study’s estimate that 2,975 people died because of Maria-related causes, and that Democrats were using the dubious report to “in order to make me look as bad as possible.”
It’s been their strategy since Hurricane Maria started forming in the Atlantic last summer. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz spent days blasting the president in front of any news camera she could find after the Category 4 storm made landfall on September 20, 2017 as her poverty-stricken constituents struggled to recover. Cruz accused the president of an act of “genocide” for not responding quicker to Maria as supplies such as bottled water sat unused and undistributed in storage areas. Political pundits insisted Trump’s (allegedly) inadequate action was because he’s a bigot. (Cruz is now being condemned for politicizing the tragedy and is under investigation by the FBI for corruption.)
The number of Puerto Ricans who died because of Hurricane Maria sadly has become political fodder, a cudgel to prove how racist, inept, and uncaring the president is. While the initial death toll was 64 people according to Puerto Rican officials, that figure did not exactly light up the Trump-is-a-climate-denying-hurricane-causing-killer narrative. So the media and university researchers went to work. CNN reporters visited dozens of funeral homes in Puerto Rico several weeks after the storm and estimated there were 499 hurricane-related fatalities. (The network is suing the Puerto Rican government for official death records.) New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said 4,500 people were killed.
A New York Times analysis in December 2017 raised the death toll to 1,052 based on a flawed design comparing the number of people who died during a 42-day period in 2017 versus those same days in 2016 and 2015. A survey-based, non-peer reviewed study by Harvard University researchers in May 2018 claimed 4,645 Puerto Ricans died during the three-month period after Maria. Last month, Puerto Rico’s government changed the official death toll to 1,400 based on fatalities due to “suicide, bacterial diseases, lack of access to health care and other factors.”
But even that would not be the final word. On August 28 George Washington University issued the 69-page report to which Trump was referring that claimed Maria caused 2,975 “excess deaths” in the five months following the hurricane. The university was hired by Puerto Rico’s governor last year to assess fatalities linked to the storm and he quickly (again) revised upward the official death toll.
The media dutifully reported the higher fatality figure with little skepticism and—in its Trump-era hyperbolic fashion—used the so-called evidence to dance on the graves of (alleged) dead people and attack the president. The New York Times editorial board said it was proof Hurricane Maria was “one of the greatest catastrophes of recent times in the United States, far exceeding Hurricane Katrina and nearly equaling the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.” (Not at all tacky for the Times to make that comparison just days before the 17th anniversary of 9/11.)
Trump was roundly rebuffed for his boast that his administration “did a fantastic job” after Maria, a comment one reporter called “the most consequential of the many lies of his presidency.” An MSNBC contributor insisted the Trump administration lied about the original number of fatalities because “it’s filled with Republicans who tried to take money away from FEMA and put it into ICE.” Embattled Mayor Cruz faulted Puerto Rican officials for following Trump’s lead and dropping the ball on recovery efforts.
There is just one little problem with the inflated death toll: There are no names of the newly-found victims or hundreds of bodies to be buried. The GWU research team reached the higher figure by comparing predicted fatalities to observed fatalities between September 2017 and February 2018.
By using computer models and not on-the-ground research, the team assumed a loss of 300,000 residents during that same time period—a nearly 10 percent drop in population—due to “displacement of migration in the hurricane’s aftermath.” This meant that the island’s 3.3 million population was slightly over 3 million five months post-hurricane. But there is little evidence to support that number; in fact, it’s been widely disputed by other studies. So the researchers start their guessing game with a number that is probably off by at least half.
Based on that premise—that the island had far fewer residents after the storm—the GWU scientists estimated 13,633 people would have died in that five-month time span. But 16,608 Puerto Ricans died. So the difference—2,975 “extra” decedents—must have been caused by storm-related maladies. Every single one. Not surprisingly, most of the alleged victims were older (77 percent were age 65 and above) and poorer.
Also, the researchers did not specify how the nearly 3,000 people died. Lynn Goldman, the dean of the school that produced the report, confirmed the study’s limitations, telling the Washington Post, “we can come up with a hundred different hypotheses. What we don’t have is the ability today to tell you these are the factors that caused this.” The team also noted that mortality rates in low-income areas of the country were still elevated even past the study’s time frame, which could call into question the legitimacy of blaming all excess deaths on the storm.
It’s very likely that more than 64 people died due to Maria. It’s unlikely that the death toll is thousands more, especially since it is impossible to conclude with certainty why someone died in the months following the disaster. If someone committed suicide in January 2018, that was because of the hurricane? Sorry, that’s not science. Lack of electricity, a poor healthcare system, an unsanitary water system, and inept government were no doubt exacerbated by the storm, but they were all major problems in Puerto Rico pre-Maria.
Trump’s callous seeming remarks about the real victims and his boastfulness about how his administration performed certainly do not help to put a lid on the situation. But he is right to do the job the media will not do: Question flawed science and challenge the reporters and politicians desperate to politicize any tragedy to score political points against him. Hoping for more dead bodies of poor Puerto Ricans could be a new low for #TheResistance.
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Photo Credit: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images