Trump uses outdated death toll to brag about his response to Puerto Rico

In this Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017 photo, patients lie in their beds at hospital in Catano, Puerto Rico. In Hurricane Maria’s wake, hospitals and their employees are wrestling with the same shortages of basic necessities as everyone else. There are people who are unable to keep insulin or other medicines refrigerated. The elderly are particularly vulnerable to the tropical heat as widespread power outages mean no air-conditioning. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Hurricane Maria delivered full-body devastation to Puerto Rico on September 30, when a major Category 4 hurricane made landfall near Yabucoa. Now, the U.S. territory is largely without clean water, fuel, or electricity.

The Trump administration’s response to the humanitarian crisis thus far has been meager. Oxfam America, a global humanitarian organization, is the latest group to criticize the federal government for its “slow and inadequate” response. Even so, the President has lauded his government’s response to the catastrophe, often citing the death toll in Puerto Rico as evidence to his team’s success.

During a briefing on Hurricane Maria relief efforts in San Juan on Tuesday, Trump largely praised himself for keeping the death toll at 16:

“If you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and what happened here with a storm that was just totally over bearing. No one has ever seen anything like that. What is your death count? … Sixteen people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people and all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud. Everyone around this table and everyone watching can be very proud of what’s taking place in Puerto Rico.”

The fatality count Trump cites is dated. At least 16 people have died in Puerto Rico, officials say, but this figure was reported six days ago and is expected to climb.

Omaya Sosa Pascual, a reporter with the Center for Investigative Journalism in San Juan, has been skeptical of the government’s figures and began calling operating hospitals to get an updated death count. By her count, there are 60 estimated deaths linked to the hurricane.

On Tuesday, Puerto Rico Public Safety Secretary Héctor Pesquera acknowledged in an interview with Pascual that the number of deaths related to Hurricane Maria will exceed 16. On Monday, at least 30 people remain missing. Pesquera — whom Pascual described as “defensive” on the subject matter — said that there are places without communication and that it’s possible people have died and the government does not know.

There are several reasons governments would be hesitant or slow to release fatality counts.

“When Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar [in 2008], it looked really high and they were reluctant to give a count,” said John Mutter, a Columbia University professor who specializes in natural disasters and studied the death toll from Hurricane Katrina. “If a lot of people die, it sends a message that the government — the emergency services — weren’t prepared properly.” 

Alternatively exaggerating the death toll prompts people to donate relief. “People figure that if a lot of people died, that’s terrible and that’ll prompt [people] to send money.” Mutter told ThinkProgress. “That’s what happened in Haiti.”

Mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, gave an impassioned plea for more relief effort. “I am begging, begging anyone who can hear us to save us from dying,” she said. “If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency.” Trump dismissed her call, and wrote in a tweet: “They…want everything to be done for them.”

On Tuesday, Trump shrugged comparisons between his administration’s response to Puerto Rico and the Bush Administration’s to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Mutter said that although Katrina’s death toll will likely be much larger than Puerto Rico’s, they are similar in that the responses were both “botched and delayed.”

“The figures I’m hearing sound low,” said Mutter. “It was a tremendous storm. Three million were affected one way or another.”