Facts vs. Ideology: Puerto Rico’s Death Toll from Hurricane Maria

What happens when a politician is forced to face facts that conflict with his or her ideology? Unfortunately, it seems, at least in the United States, that person’s ideology now trumps the truth.

Or should I say, Trump’s truth trumps the truth.

Those of you who read these weekly blog posts know the Spirited Reasoner is loathe to mention the names of politicians or even to opine regarding the relative merits of Republican versus Democratic ideologies. In fact, in recent weeks, I’ve announced my tentative allegiance to Georgism, an ideology that could be claimed by wings of either major party or by a third party.

This rant is not about that.

President Trump’s recent Tweet about the Puerto Rican death toll after Hurricane Maria flies in the face of factual evidence. Researchers from George Washington University spent months analyzing and counting actual death certificates–not merely taking polls of surviving residents. What they discovered is that the number of deaths attributable to the hurricane was 2,975. While folks might quibble about the “cause” of a particular death here or there, this number is far more accurate than President Trump’s number.  He appears to prefer the original number he was told soon after the storm: 16 deaths.

I hasten to add that President Trump’s number does not appear to represent the views of the Republican Party. House Speaker Paul Ryan–a Republican himself–seemed to support, or at least not overtly challenge, the methodology used by GWU.

So how could these two numbers be so far apart? One explanation is that the earlier figure–16–was based solely on those individuals whose bodies were recovered as a result of drowning, falling, or being struck by windblown debris during the storm. It did not include those folks who died for reasons directly relating to Hurricane Maria, but whose deaths may not have been so apparent to first responders.

For example, when a nursing home filled with elderly people was evacuated prior to the storm, and then dozens of those folks died days or weeks later as a result of heat exposure or failure to receive their usual medications, these deaths would not have been known to rescue crews in the hours immediately following the storm. The fact that the revised number was so much higher reflects the loss of vital services across the island for a period of months, services that included electricity, safe drinking water, and essential health care.

The revised number should not be viewed as unbelievably high, since the death toll of Hurricane Katrina approached 2,000, and that storm struck in a place where residents could flee to safe locations where vital services were available.

Yes, these revised numbers are painful, because they confirm the deadly consequences of a slow response to a natural catastrophe of this magnitude. But facts are facts. We can shout “Fake News” till we are blue in the face, but all our shouting will not change the number of names on those death certificates.