09.14.2018 0

The total dead in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria may never be known, but we should still try to find them

By Robert Romano

How many people died in Puerto Rico in Hurricanes Maria and Irma?

In a report delivered to Congress in early August, the official fatality count from the government of Puerto Rico had been 1,427, made public for comment in early July almost 9 months after the storms, which was up from an initial estimate of 64 dead.

But then on Aug. 28, Puerto Rico revised that figure upward when it endorsed the findings of a George Washington University study it had commissioned in February that ultimately estimated about 3,000 Americans had died in the storm and its aftermath.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said he was appointing a commission to look into the study’s findings and to get a sense of the total dead and to see what measures can be taken to prevent another catastrophic loss of life. That’s the right approach.

On Sept. 13, President Donald Trump expressed his doubts about the new estimate, writing on Twitter, “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000…”

It is true that the official estimate until July by Puerto Rico had stood at 64 and that then the number jumped to 1,427 in July and then to 3,000 at the end of August.

And the figure may go up again when the Puerto Rican government is done completing its findings and it will have little to do with partisan political motivations, as the President unfortunately suggested.

This was a massive Category 4 hurricane that knocked out all electricity on the island and resulted in catastrophic flooding. The island was effectively destroyed with tens of billions of dollars of damage. It was a catastrophic tragedy. To recover will require rebuilding much of its infrastructure, a process that will take years.

The truth is, the total dead may never be known, but we should still try to find it out for humanitarian reasons — and to see what could be done in the future to prevent such a deadly outcome. The government’s foremost responsibility is to do everything it can to protect lives, both at the federal and local level.

“In addition to Puerto Rico’s commission, the Federal Emergency Manage Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Defense should do a full evaluation and audit to help determine a best estimate of loss of life and what actions might have been taken to prevent it,” Americans for Limited Government President Rick Manning said.

“The commission should be unsparing in its search for the truth by getting as complete an accounting of the remains and the missing so that future loss of life can be prevented,” Manning added.

But it will be hard work. In 2015, Fivethirtyeight.com’s Carl Bialik wrote, “We Still Don’t Know How Many People Died Because Of Katrina,” which underscores how difficult accounting for all the dead in a catastrophic hurricane can really be.

“There is still no memorial listing the names of Katrina victims, still no way to know how many remain uncounted or unidentified, and still no agreement on how to count victims if a storm of Katrina’s impact hits the U.S. again. Ten years on, we’re still in the dark,” wrote Bialik.

The 2011 assessment by the National Hurricane Center underscored this point, “The total number of fatalities known, as of this writing, to be either directly or indirectly related to Katrina is 1833, based on reports to date from state and local officials in five states: 1577 fatalities in Louisiana, 238 in Mississippi, 14 in Florida, 2 in Georgia, and 2 in Alabama. The total number of fatalities directly related to the forces of Katrina is estimated to be about 1500 spread across four states, with about 1300 of these in Louisiana, about 200 in Mississippi, 6 in Florida, and one in Georgia.  Especially for Louisiana and Mississippi, the number of direct fatalities is highly uncertain and the true number will probably not ever be known.”

Read that again so it sets in: “the true number will probably not ever be known.”

It was a situation with massive flooding throughout New Orleans, Louisiana and Mississippi, with thousands of businesses and homes completely destroyed, covering a much larger geographic area than Puerto Rico but being on the mainland U.S. arguably had a greater range of resources to account for the dead, and the tally was still “highly uncertain.”

So it will be with Maria and Puerto Rico. Ultimately, based on the gathering of remains, a number will be arrived at, perhaps much higher than currently estimated, but it will never be conclusive — and we should be clear about that.

Even George Washington University noted the shortcomings of its study as it was released. According to CNN’s reporting when the study was published, “Tuesday’s report from George Washington University — which Puerto Rico commissioned for $305,368, according to the contract — is just another number, an estimation, [Lisa] de Jesus said. It doesn’t recognize the individual victims like her friend [Reinaldo Ruiz Cintron]. Researchers initially proposed an assessment that would have included individual storm-related deaths — likely including interviews with family members, medical providers and a review of hospital records, said Dr. Carlos Santos-Burgoa, a professor of global health at George Washington University and the principal investigator on the report Puerto Rico commissioned. That proposal was rejected, apparently because of the cost…”

So with the new study, like Katrina 13 years later, there is still not a comprehensive list of the dead from Hurricane Maria a year later that you could look up. Phase two of the study, which has not yet been undertaken, would examine the causes of death and take an account of the individuals who perished.  As it is, questions can and should be asked about why it’s taken Puerto Rico this long to produce its estimates.

But the dead should not be forgotten. 13 years after Hurricane Katrina and we still do not know truly how many people died and we never will. One year after Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck Puerto Rico, and officials are still counting. We need to let them finish.

To date, the estimates that have come have been from the government of Puerto Rico itself and the death toll may yet rise again. Every effort should be made by the federal government to support Puerto Rico’s ongoing recovery of the remains of loved ones to get as full an accounting as possible. Moreover, in rebuilding the island, taking into account the lessons learned to make sure to the extent possible better infrastructure can be put into place that is more fortified against such a catastrophic storm — to save lives.

Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government.

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