Death tolls are one of the main ways the public understands the impact of a disaster. And as my colleague Alexia Fernandez Campbell and I reported earlier this week, the official death count from Puerto Rico of 45 is very much at odds with other reports from the situation on the ground.
On October 3, President Donald Trump used the low death toll — which was then 16 — as an opportunity to play down the severity of the disaster when he visited the island. And on Thursday, a Republican lawmaker used the low death toll to again claim the situation in Puerto Rico is no longer life-threatening.
“If half the country didn’t have food or water, those people would be dying, and they’re not,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said on CNN’s New Day, as first reported by the Hill.
Perry’s quip came after host Chris Cuomo cited reports of food and water shortages on the island as a reason why FEMA support was still needed. Perry accused Cuomo of making the food and water shortages up and then pressed him to quantify the need. “What is enough that will satisfy your network?” Perry shouted.
Puerto Rico is by all accounts still in the grip of a humanitarian crisis. Some 24 days after the storm made landfall, 91 percent of people on the island still do not have power and 37 percent have not had their municipal water services restored. Hospitals have limited fuel to run generators. While FEMA, the military, and other relief agencies are distributing millions of meals and bottles of water, reports suggest the supplies are not matching the need.
The New York Times on Thursday described Puerto Ricans desperately hunting for bottled water in the capital of San Juan. The Environmental Protection Agency has said that some have been resorting to drinking water from contaminated Superfund sites. And the Guardian cited FEMA officials who said that they had a shortfall of nearly 2 million meals a day to meet the food needs on the island.
Counting the dead in the wake of a disaster the scale of Hurricane Maria is no doubt extremely challenging. But Vox’s analysis suggests that the government is being very cautious in designating deaths as directly or indirectly hurricane-related, and painting a less severe picture, compared to the public information available. And so the American public — and some policymakers like Perry — may perceive the situation on the ground as less serious than it is.
On Thursday, a day after Vox published its findings, two members of Congress announced they were requesting an audit of the Puerto Rico death toll, citing our report. “It would be morally reprehensible to intentionally underreport the true death toll to portray relief efforts as more successful than they are,” wrote Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS). “If, on the contrary, this information has benignly been muddled due to a lack of capacity on the island, then the federal government must work hand-in-hand with Puerto Rico's government to provide a clearer assessment.”