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EDITORIAL

Puerto Rico and Maria, an American tragedy

A 2017 file photo shows the devastation left after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico.
A 2017 file photo shows the devastation left after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. AP FILE PHOTO

As macabre as such statistics may be, death tolls after natural disasters set the tone for the public’s reaction — and the government’s. One reason Hurricane Katrina struck so hard at the nation’s conscience in 2005 was the shocking number of deaths: That storm killed 1,800 Americans. The public gave more to charity, and expected more from Washington, knowing how much human misery the storm inflicted.

That reality makes it important to get those grim facts right. And scandalous when governments — like Puerto Rico’s — get them so drastically wrong.

According to Puerto Rican officials, the storm that devastated the island last year killed 64 islanders. But this week, researchers from Harvard and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center calculated that 4,645 people died as a result of the storm, a 70-fold increase, according to a survey-based study.

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Had the more accurate numbers been known earlier, when the storm’s aftermath still dominated news coverage, it’s possible that the federal government’s inadequate response might have come under harsher scrutiny. But it’s not too late to give Maria the attention it deserved all along. The island’s electric grid is still struggling; evacuees still face challenges on the mainland; the island still has a long recovery ahead that will require help from federal agencies.

The Harvard scientists are not the only ones looking at the number of fatalities caused by Maria. Ricardo Rosselló, the island’s governor, commissioned a team from George Washington University to lead an independent investigation into Maria’s death toll, and preliminary findings are supposed to be released soon. Rosselló should be transparent about that report and make it
public.

The Harvard report not only provides a fuller picture, it lays out some of the causes of death — lessons that can be applied after future disasters.

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“Interruption of medical care was the primary cause of sustained high mortality rates in the months after the hurricane,” according to the report. People died waiting for medical services that arrived way too late. Emergency authorities need to do a better job ensuring medical systems get back up and running, and are accessible to
patients.

The Harvard study also serves as a warning sign that Puerto Rico remains extremely vulnerable — and hurricane season begins tomorrow. There are parts of the island still without electricity, and the power grid remains susceptible to widespread blackouts. Imagine a tropical depression — to say nothing of a full-on hurricane — hitting the island now.

Puerto Rico is a part of the United States, and the deaths of 4,645 Americans from a natural disaster is a national tragedy. The Trump administration and Congress need to start treating it that way.