Sarah Grace Goolden
On Thursday, September 13, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to declare that “3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico.” This is a direct response to the study conducted by researchers at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. Despite the presidential disapproval, the researchers are standing firm with their numbers, which they had revised from 64 to 2,975 last month. The question that remains is, who is correct?
Later in the same tweet, Trump goes on to say that when he visited after the storm had hit, around 6 to 18 deaths had been reported. That part is accurate. He then claims that as time went on, the numbers “did not go up by much” which is why he was surprised and skeptical of the new information. If you’re also wondering how less than two dozen deaths became nearly 3,000, there are a lot of factors to consider.
It’s difficult to get an exact number at all, including the original count. In the chaos, an exact report is almost impossible without actual bodies. This means that those who are reported missing could be alive, but it’s difficult to be sure. Initial reports should always be taken with a grain of salt, and we should prepare for their adjustment.
Another aspect is that many lives were lost in the aftermath of the hurricane rather than during it. Therefore Trump had the right number from the date he visited, but the additional deaths from the effects of the hurricane are just as valid.
In the case of Hurricane Katrina, which caused catastrophic damage to the United States in 2005, many people were able to evacuate. Puerto Rico did not have that same mass exodus.
The complicated process of figuring out how many people actually died directly because of the storm is not an easy feat. Using what the Milken Institute claims to be “state-of-the-art mathematical model,” the researchers were able to agree that their new number was the most accurate.
For Hurricane Maria, it is most accurate to use what is called an “excess mortality study.” This gathers the total death rate and then subtracts those that most likely would have died anyway, using previous statistics. This way, you don’t include people of “old age,” as Trump suggested. While this probably does not provide a completely perfect number, it’s arguably the closest possible conclusion.
Trump is correct in saying six to 18 people died, but are the indirect deaths included in that? They are likely considering the nearly 3,000 fatalities would not have taken place if the hurricane had not struck.
Edward N. Rappaport, the deputy director of the National Hurricane Center, and B. Wayne Blanchard, formerly with Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that “Direct deaths do not tell the whole story. They do not include the important class of indirect fatalities–casualties that, while not directly attributable to one of the physical forces of a tropical cyclone, would not be expected in the absence of the storm. These losses can occur in significant numbers.”
It might seem silly to bicker back and forth about numbers. After all, the damage is done and little can be done to help the situation. While that’s true, it is extremely relevant because the truth is important. Whether it was 3,000 people or less than 20 is important. The public deserves a right to be informed. To claim that an entire party was fudging numbers to skew public opinion is ridiculous.
A lack of fact-checking just further divides the entire nation. We must demand the truth from every politician, regardless of status or political affiliation. When we normalize blatant disregard for the truth, there is nothing to believe in.