Muted responses from U.S. lawmakers and other prominent figures have greeted a new report indicating that the death toll in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria may have been 70 times greater than the official number. The island’s plight has been a source of contention and politicking for months due to mounting scandals and a number of high-level missteps.
Officially, the death toll in Puerto Rico stands at only 64 people, a relatively small number given the gravity of Hurricane Maria. The Category 4 hurricane slammed the island in September last year, knocking out power for months and spurring the longest blackout in U.S. history. But a New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) study published on Tuesday has now found that at least 4,645 people (and as many as 5,740) died in Puerto Rico due to causes relating to Hurricane Maria.
President Trump has so far offered no statement in response to the report. The White House has historically downplayed the impact of Hurricane Maria. During his one and only visit to Puerto Rico last October, Trump infamously threw paper towels into a crowd and told residents they were lucky the storm was not “a real catastrophe like Katrina” while bemoaning the price tag associated with rebuilding the area.
Approximately 1,833 people are believed to have died in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. If the numbers indicated by the NEJM report are confirmed, Hurricane Maria would be the deadliest storm in modern U.S. history, with Puerto Rico representing the majority of the casualties.
The report’s conclusions, however, don’t seem to have generated much of a reaction, save from a small number of officials who called the findings disturbing and criticized the Trump administration for its weak response.
No Republicans, including members of the bipartisan Climate Caucus, appear to have issued public statements as of Wednesday morning. Many Democrats similarly remained silent, in a move that reflects larger apathy regarding the island’s feeble condition.
In a three-paragraph statement released Tuesday, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) called the study’s conclusions “shocking” and “profoundly disturbing” while taking aim at the White House.
“Eight months after the Trump Administration’s stunningly weak response, far too many of our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico lack power, adequate shelter and other basic necessities,” Pelosi said.
“Our fellow Americans deserve to know that their government will be there for them throughout the long road to recovery, without question or hesitation,” she continued.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) similarly called the findings “alarming” and “upsetting”. Hoyer noted that, during a visit to the island, he had seen “how hard Puerto Ricans were working to make up for a lack of aid from the mainland.” Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) also called the island’s crisis “among one of President Trump’s most significant failures” and laid blame for Puerto Rico’s struggles on the White House.
Jose Menendez, Chapter Chair for Sierra Club de Puerto Rico, went a step further, linking the island’s woes to the local government as much as to the Trump administration.
“Rebuilding is only beginning, but it is clear to those of us in Puerto Rico that the inexcusable inaction by the Trump Administration, and Governor [Ricardo] Rosselló’s failure to adequately prepare our island’s health infrastructure for disaster response, resulted in avoidable suffering and death,” Menendez said in a statement.
Bonnie Castillo, executive director for National Nurses United, said that the study “only confirms what our volunteer nurses on the ground in Puerto Rico saw firsthand: The people of Puerto Rico were left to die by an administration that failed its own American citizens.”
Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) wrote on Twitter that the ongoing conditions in Puerto Rico mark a “profound tragedy, and a national disgrace”, while Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) argued that lawmakers “must get to the bottom of this [death toll] discrepancy” and that the official death count “concealed” the extent of the hurricane’s impact. Along with Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), Velázquez called for an investigation into the death count last year.
According to the NEJM report, a lack of access to hospitals and other basic necessities took a heavy toll on residents and sparked an exodus to the mainland. Eight months later, much of the island is still recovering, but things may in fact be far worse than originally estimated, the report warns, noting that its estimates for the number of people killed by the hurricane’s impacts is likely a conservative one.
A number of Puerto Ricans told ThinkProgress last week that immediately following the hurricane, responses from both the mainland and the local government were sluggish. That slow response exacerbated the storm’s impact on an island already massively in debt and plagued by a faulty electrical grid.
Many accused Gov. Rosselló of failing to call for help swiftly, while virtually all said Trump had done little to help Puerto Ricans in their recovery efforts. Scandals involving the response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as well as missteps made by the Puerto Rican government, have also drawn criticism from residents.
When asked about the NEJM report’s findings following its release on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said only that the Trump administration will continue to work with the government of Puerto Rico.
“FEMA has already done the largest response ever in history to any natural disaster,” she said. “They’re in Puerto Rico, and we’re going to continue to give as much assistance as possible.”
In Puerto Rico, reactions to the report’s new death toll estimates were mixed. Carlos R. Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said that the island’s government has “always expected the number to be higher than what was previously reported” but declined to elaborate much further. Mercader said that a study on the death toll commissioned by the Puerto Rican government from George Washington University is expected soon.
Gov. Rosselló said his government had no qualms with the findings on Tuesday when asked about it during an unrelated press conference.
“There really is no logical explanation for us wanting to [suppress] the numbers. We want the real number to come out,” he said, according to BuzzFeed. “We had a protocol that really was sub-par and we recognize it and now really towards the future we want to make sure that it is effective.”
At least one Puerto Rican leader minced no words in voicing her thoughts on Twitter.
“This should be a day of collective mourning in Puerto Rico,” wrote San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, seemingly referring to both Trump and Rosselló, who belongs to a rival political party. “Thousands dead because of administrations that could not get the job done.”