When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico last year, it brought devastation in its wake. Entire villages were destroyed by floods and mudslides. At one point, 95% of homes and businesses on the island were without electricity. Many roads were impassable. Food and water were in critically short supply everywhere. Hospitals had no power to treat the sick and wounded.
As if that wasn’t enough hardship for the people of Puerto Rico, they were soon confronted by another storm, one that took the form of Donald Trump’s massive ego and lifelong history of racism. After the storm, Trump visited the island to toss rolls of paper towels to starving people. In a press conference with Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rossello in October, he gloated about how low the death toll was, as if he personally was responsible for the small number of deaths. It was another “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie” moment for a nation growing increasingly used to dismal performances by US presidents and emergency management officials, especially where the lives of people of color are involved.
At that press conference, a preening Trump crowed, “We’ve saved a lot of lives. If you look at the — every death is a horror. But if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous — hundred and hundred and hundreds of people that died. And you look at what happened here with really a storm that was totally overpowering. Nobody’s ever seen anything like this. And what is your death count at this point, 17?” To which Rossello helpfully replied, “Sixteen, certified.”
“Sixteen people, certified,” Trump said, his face beaming. “16 people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people.” Probably all those paper towels are what made the difference. Ultimately, the official number of certified deaths was raised to 64. Keep your eye on that word “certified.” Its importance will be revealed shortly.
A Cry For Help
Trump’s outrageous claims were so preposterous, nobody but The Donald believed them. Governor Rossello requested a review of the way the island recorded and reported death statistics and enlisted the aid of George Washington University to help with that task. Its report is expected in a few weeks. Meanwhile, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center conducted their own independent inquiry. In a report published by the New England Journal of Medicine (pay wall) on May 29, the authors of the report say, “Our results indicate that the official death count of 64 is a substantial underestimate of the true burden of mortality after Hurricane Maria.”
The actual number, as reported by the Washington Post, is 4,645 — or “4,645 big, beautiful deaths,” as the Trumpster might say while smiling down on a crowd of cheering supporters. That number is more than double the total from Hurricane Katrina. The study has prompted Vox to pen this headline, “An unfit president contributes to an unprecedented catastrophe.” Saying that Trump turns everything into a culture war, Vox adds, “The carnage in Puerto Rico is the most severe manifestation of Trump’s basic unfitness for the job he currently occupies, but it’s far from the only one. And the focus on his various antics has an unfortunate tendency to detract from the basic reality that he doesn’t put in the time or the work to solve problems, when really that’s the core of the issue.”
When Is A Death A Certified Death?
Statistics are always a problem. What to count is often as important as the actual count. And let’s be clear. No one is saying the Trump administration was responsible for any of the deaths that occurred as a result of Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico has been grossly mismanaged by the US government for decades. Although its people are US citizens, they have little representation in the US Congress. In the chaos known as the budgetary process, it has had its needs ignored or pushed to the end of the agenda at every turn.
As a result, its infrastructure is in tatters. It is heavily in debt and its government barely functions. Culturally, those on the US mainland have traditionally thought of island residents as lazy and shiftless — little more than grifters exploiting the benevolence of Uncle Sam for their own personal gain. Those attitudes have formed the basis of at least two Broadway plays — West Side Story in 1961 and Paul Simon’s brilliant Capeman in 1998.
As the researchers point out, according to Puerto Rico regulations, to be a certified disaster-related death, it must be confirmed by the Forensic Sciences Institute, which requires the body go to San Juan to be examined or that a medical examiner travel to the local community. There is no room in the regulations to account for the fact that travel was impossible after the storm, no telephones or cell phone services were available, and most medical facilities were barely functioning. And so the official certified death toll when Trump made his visit to the island stood at 16.
Math teachers instruct young students to do a simple check in their head when solving problems. If you add 1346 and 2698 and get 10,987, something should ring a bell in your head to suggest an error has been made in the calculation. Yet Trump is so clueless, so uncaring, and so divorced from reality, he seized on a statistic that was obviously wrong for no reason other than to make himself look good. By so doing, he made the deaths in Puerto Rico all about him.
It is this constant preening self-promotion that makes him unsuited to lead the United States. or any nation. Think about it. If you were going on vacation, would you ask Donald Trump to watch your dog or water your plants? Would you leave him alone with your daughter? If the answer is no to either of those questions, then why is he the only person on Earth with access to the US nuclear launch codes?
A Statistical Exercise
The Harvard/Beth Israel study is itself a statistical exercise. The researchers collected their data in telephone interviews and used it to conclude that the estimated post-hurricane death rate from September 20, 2017 — the date Maria struck the island — and December 31 was 14.3 deaths per 1,000 residents. Compared to the mortality rate in 2016, that was a 62% increase. The result? 4,645 “excess deaths.”
Okay, deeper into the statistical rabbit hole we go. What is an “excess death”? According to the Center For Disease Control, a death can be directly attributed to a storm like Maria if it is caused by forces related to the event, whether it is flying debris or loss of medical services. With so many deaths and the medical community being overwhelmed by communication and and transportation challenges after the storm, officials simply wrote “natural causes” on death certificates and moved on.
Why Is Any Of This Important?
The researchers say timely and accurate estimates of death tolls are critical to understanding the severity of disasters and targeting recovery efforts, according to the Washington Post. Knowing the extent of the impact “has additional importance for families because it provides emotional closure, qualifies them for disaster-related aid, and promotes resiliency,” they said.
That assumes anyone in Washington cares about any of those things as they pertain to Puerto Rico, which has struggled under the burden of racism for most of its existence, every since Christopher Columbus reported that the native people were docile and submissive, which would make them excellent slaves.
The Blinders Of Racism
Trump himself behaves much like a plantation owner when it comes to his dealings with anyone who is not of pure Caucasian stock. His bias was on display in January when he referred to several nations — especially Haiti — as “shithole countries” and wondered aloud why America didn’t attract more people from Nordic countries like Norway. It was on display again in the wake of the Charlottesville horror when he praised the alt right demonstrators who beat people of color.
It was prominent again this week when he pointedly declined to say anything negative about Roseanne Barr’s despicable Tweet comparing former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett to an ape. Instead — and all too predictably — he made it about himself. At its foundation, the problem with Trump is that he does not make any effort to represent all the people of America, only his base.
That was made intuitively obvious to the most casual observer a few months ago when ABC announced the new show starring Roseanne Barr show. Trump crowed to supporters that the show was getting fantastic ratings and purred, “It’s about us,” meaning the people he considers part of his base. Very few dark faces in that crowd.
Is Puerto Rico A Shithole Country?
Many people believe Trump doesn’t even know Puerto Ricans are American citizens. It’s pretty clear he considers them inferior to white Americans if he considers them at all. In the absence of leadership, the island will likely continue to suffer from neglect at the hands of US politicians and corruption within its own government. It will be unprepared to deal with any future storms any better than it did Maria. Donald Trump will offer them no solace. He can only be bothered with sucking up to his supporters.
Meanwhile, the 2018 hurricane season begins on June 1 and Puerto Rico, thanks to a total lack of leadership from the White House on down, will be just as unprepared to deal with storms this year as it was last year. The people there can be excused if they look forward to the coming months with a deep sense of foreboding, knowing they are all alone out in the ocean and will get precious little help from the Great White Father across the sea.