On Thursday, President Trump leapt directly into the path of an oncoming public disaster, tearing into the official Puerto Rican government estimate of the death toll from Hurricane Maria just before Hurricane Florence was scheduled to make landfall. Trump tweeted:
Now, there are serious questions to be asked about whether the Trump administration’s response to Maria was sufficient and whether malfeasance largely rested with the local authorities. Those questions were exacerbated yesterday by footage of millions of bottles of water sitting on a tarmac in Puerto Rico.
But there’s also no question that the original death count of 6 to 18 was extraordinarily low, and clearly not accurate.
Calculating death tolls from natural disasters is notoriously difficult – death tolls are rarely mere tallies of names. Bodies are lost; people without families die; it’s difficult to determine how many people have actually perished in a hurricane. For example, Carl Bialik of FiveThirtyEight pointed out in 2015 that “we still don’t know how many people died because of Katrina.” He summarized:
By its own admission, Louisiana never finished counting the dead. Its last news release on the topic, from February 2006, put the statewide toll at 1,103. Three months later, it added hundreds of state residents who’d died in other states. Three months after that, in August 2006, Louisiana counted 1,464 victims, with 135 people still missing. Today, when asked about the Louisiana death total, the health department cites a 2008 study that reviewed death certificates and concluded that there were 986 victims. But that study said the total could be nearly 50 percent higher if deaths possibly linked to the storm were included.
It was particularly difficult to count “indirect” deaths:
Direct deaths are those that occur from drowning or an injury sustained during the storm or post-storm flooding, while indirect deaths occur from some other cause that might be linked to the storm, such as an inability to access medical care to treat an illness. After Katrina, government counters in Louisiana chose to include indirect deaths based on an arbitrary time cutoff — people who were evacuated from New Orleans and died after Oct. 1 were not included, while those who died before were. The authors of the 2008 study that counted 986 Louisiana deaths took a different approach, counting only deaths that could be directly attributed to the storm.
That didn’t stop President Trump from favorably comparing the death toll in Puerto Rico to the death toll from Hurricane Katrina back in May:
Sixteen people, certified — 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.
So, how was the count from Puerto Rico actually obtained? It was an approximation, not a list of names, according to Governor Ricardo Rossello. He stated the number could increase or decrease over time. George Washington University released a study based on “excess deaths” over the normal death rate at that particular time of year:
Our excess mortality study analyzed past mortality patterns (mortality registration and population census data from 2010 to 2017) in order to predict the expected mortality if Hurricane María had not occurred (predicted mortality) and compare this figure to the actual deaths that occurred (observed mortality).
They estimated “total excess mortality” at 2,975 – and that has become the government count. The Puerto Rican government had already increased its body count to 1,427 in early September, estimating deaths in the four months after the storm. But Lynn Goldman, dean of the university’s Milken Institute of Public Health, which ran the study, admitted, “among all the deaths that occurred, which of them were related to Maria, which of them would not have occurred if it hadn't been for the storm? We're not able to say that now.”
CNN acknowledges that there are multiple estimates:
In November, CNN reporters surveyed 112 funeral homes across the island, about half the total. Reporters found that funeral home directors identified 499 deaths they considered to be hurricane-related. In December, The New York Times estimated 1,052 "excess deaths"occurred after Maria. Others produced similar estimates.
A research letter published this month in the medical journal JAMA estimated that between 1,006 and 1,272 people died in connection to the storm.
In May, a team that included researchers from Harvard University published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine estimating that 793 to 8,498 people died in Maria's wake, a range that some academics have criticized as overly broad. The study's midpoint estimate -- 4,645 deaths -- became a rallying cry for activists upset by what they see as a lack of accountability for the scale of the catastrophe by officials in Puerto Rico and the United States.
So the official Puerto Rican count isn’t guaranteed, by any measure. But it’s surely higher than the original count, and it’s absurd for Trump to claim otherwise – especially when Trump was happy to slam the Obama administration for the 285 hurricane deaths in Hurricane Sandy, despite the initial estimate of 26 dead. Here was Trump on Sandy: