Early last month, President Trump visited Puerto Rico on a journey made to signal the federal government’s recognition of the unfolding catastrophe from Hurricane Maria. When the hurricane crashed into Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, it cut off electricity to practically each of the island’s 3.4 million residents, destroyed 80 percent of the agricultural supply, knocked out cellular phone provider, blocked roads, decimated homes and kept at least 1.7 million people without potable water.
Such extensive breakdowns in what engineers call “lifeline systems” would have been devastating in virtually any American state or city. Puerto Rico, a bankrupt commonwealth where practically half of all people live below the poverty collection and some 650,000 are age 65 or more aged, was especially vulnerable.
But instead of pledging support for a large-scale emergency relief program, Mr. Trump declared that Hurricane Maria had not been a “actual catastrophe” and complained that the storm experienced “thrown our budget just a little out of whack.” He announced that the official death toll from the hurricane, merely 16 at that time, was the authentic way of measuring the government’s response. “We saved a lot of lives,” he boasted, and then flew back home.
The statements were stunningly tone deaf. Morgues and funeral homes were calling for help dealing with the bodies piling up around their services. Scores of men and women who lived and died alone were sure to become learned when roads reopened. Nearly everyone, regardless of class or position, was stranded, troubled and afraid. But federal officials, following Mr. Trump’s lead, continuing to insist that the mortality level was minuscule.
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Now that narrative has collapsed. On Thursday, Puerto Rican officials announced that 472 more people died there in September 2017 than in September 2016. That amount, which epidemiologists contact the excess death toll, is a more reliable way of measuring the disaster’s human effects than the initial amount of 16 that Mr. Trump cited, since it includes conditions that medical examiners cannot process in the quick aftermath of the storm.
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In theory, it’s conceivable that the surplus death toll will go down when October’s mortality statistics come in; perhaps Hurricane Maria killed mainly people who have lived just a few weeks or months anyhow. But the record from similar disasters suggests that this is unlikely. It’s far more most likely that Puerto Rico experienced another spike in deaths during October, when, thanks to Mr. Trump’s refusal to aid a significant federal relief effort, electricity, food and water remained an issue.