White House Undercounts Deaths in Puerto Rico
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White House Undercounts Deaths in Puerto Rico

Trump and Top Aides Pat Themselves on Back Despite an Inept, Agonizingly Slow Response

David Cay Johnston

While Donald Trump brags about the “incredible job” he imagines his administration is doing in Puerto Rico, the actual death count is much higher than officials acknowledge.

The death toll is rising, but unknown, because of Trump’s agonizingly slow – and hostile – response to Hurricane Maria. Trump’s tweets (shown below) show how his thinking was influenced by concern for Wall Street investors in failed Puerto Rico bonds.

The official death count has stood at 16 for days, but that number only includes those known killed by the storm, the Center for Investigative Journalism in San Juan reports (CPI).

Not counted as victims are people who died afterward because hospitals, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities lacked electricity to keep ventilators, kidney dialysis machines and other equipment going, or air conditioners to fend off the heat.

Mudslides, lack of water and food, illnesses caused by the failure of water pumping and sewage treatment plants and other causes are excluded from the official count, the center’s Omaya Sosa Pascual reported.

McNelly Torres, an investigative reporter in Florida who grew up in Puerto Rico, said that she has not been able to contact her mother, sister, uncles or cousins since the storm.

“There is no communication,” said Torres. “The little towns are always ignored and that is what I am most worried about – the people not in San Juan, but in little towns and the mountains.”

She grew up in two beach towns on the southeast coast. One is Arroyo near where the hurricane reached land, and Patillas just to the east.  Photos show the towns there are flattened.

“I am sure there are many more dead than the official count,” Torres said. “There are mountainous areas where we have had mudslides” during storms that dropped much less rain.

The White House knew several days in advance that the hurricane would strike the American island in the Caribbean.

The Trump administration knew three days before Maria hit Puerto Rico that it was a powerful hurricane, potentially the worst in 90 years. It would have been a Category 5 hurricane had winds been clocked at just one mile per hour faster than officially recorded.

Yet a week later the Navy hospital ship Comfort sat idle at its dock in Norfolk, Va. It finally departed for Puerto Rico on Sept. 29, which was 12 days after the Trump Administration was on full notice and five days after Hillary Clinton called on Trump to get Navy ships, including the Comfort, to Puerto Rico.

Many of those sent to help were wasting time at a soccer stadium because there was no plan to deploy them and get them to work saving lives. And as of Saturday, Sept. 30, a week and a half after the storm hit the island, only 24 helicopters were available to ferry goods to people in areas where roads are washed out or blocked by mudslides. Another 28 have been requested.

The lethargic response is not surprising given Trump’s initial responses to the disaster, in which he brought up the island’s unpaid bond debts in what seemed like an attack on this American commonwealth rather than a concern for saving lives.

As the Trump administration has done before, it simply claims to be doing a great job despite all evidence and then attacks those who report facts.

Right before that, Trump engaged in a partisan attack, with no basis in fact, on the mayor of San Juan, who had begged for help and complained it was slow and lacked the coordination to distribute fuel, food and water. Trump tweeted: “The mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump.”

Those tweets show how Trump cares more about his delicate ego than the lives of American citizens.

Trump was not alone in praising his administration for its imagined rapid and effective response.

“I am very satisfied” with the response to Maria, Elaine Duke, the acting Homeland Security secretary, declared Thursday at the White House. “The relief effort is under control. It is proceeding very well.”

Duke then minimized the death count, which the Puerto Rican investigative journalists’ organization had shown was knowingly being undercounted by excluding those who died in Maria’s aftermath.  “I know it is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane,” Duke said.

Trump’s homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, also gave the administration a pat on the back for a great job noticed by no one on the ground in Puerto Rico: “Elaine Duke, you’re doing a wonderful job.”

Bossert then said, “What I will tell you is that we are mobilizing and marshaling the resources of the United States of America in a way that is absolutely professional, fast, and adequate to meet the needs,” Bossert declared. Later, Bossert said “This is textbook and it’s been done well.”

Repeatedly, Bossert said news reports were behind the news. Nice try at distraction, but it missed the fact that the administration could have started sooner and done more.

The federal government has a long and thoroughly documented history of slow responses to natural disasters, most infamously after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Trump promised he would fix all that. Indeed, during the campaign, he had insisted again and again that he should be elected because only one person – Donald Trump – could fix the many problems with the federal government.

So far there is no evidence Trump has made disaster relief any better. Indeed, the evidence so far shows that by devoting time to Twitter attacks on National Football League players – and some owners – for locking arms or kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, Trump has failed to focus on life-and-death matters in favor of his view that dissent and peaceful protest are unpatriotic.

Trump’s hostility to Puerto Rico is not surprising. In the housing discrimination case brought against him and his father in 1973, evidence showed that rent seekers were coded not just to reject black applicants, but also Puerto Ricans. Trump agreed to be supervised for two years during which the discrimination stopped, only to resume once oversight ended.

Notice in the trio of tweets below how Trump brings up irrelevant finance issues of concern to Wall Street and the difference in tone in his Puerto Rico comments versus hurricane damage in two other parts of America, Florida and Texas:


Keep this in mind – not only will it take years to fix the problems in Puerto Rico, as well as in Florida and Texas, but this problem will recur as hurricanes strike in the years and decades ahead. Climate change involves disruptions of weather patterns. Severe storms and severe droughts are part of the process of climate change.

Trump claims climate change is a “ Chinese hoax.”

Will the Trump administration be better prepared for the storms of 2018 and beyond? Will it be pro-active instead of reactive? Or will it just blame others and attack those who use facts to point out its failures and shortcomings in future disaster relief efforts?


September 30, 2017