Trump’s False Claims Rejecting Puerto Rico’s Death Toll From Hurricane Maria


Fact Check of the Day

In a pair of tweets casting doubt on the official estimate of nearly 3,000 deaths, the president clung to an outdated estimate, wrongly suggested that doubt over the figure emerged “a long time later” and inaccurately characterized the new figure as including all deaths on the island.

Linda Qiu

the facts

False.

President Trump rejected the official estimate from the Puerto Rico government that nearly 3,000 people died from Hurricane Maria through a series of misleading or false claims on Thursday.

He cited an outdated tally that officials had acknowledged almost immediately was too low, misleadingly suggested that doubt over the tally did not emerge until “a long time later,” accused Democrats, without evidence, of inflating the figures and wrongly described the current official estimate as counting all deaths on the island, regardless of whether they were related to the storm.

The 3,000 figure comes from an estimate in a study by independent researchers at George Washington University and commissioned by the Puerto Rico government.

The researchers found that government data documented 16,608 deaths from September 2017 to February 2018 — 2,975 more deaths than under predicted mortality rates. In other words, researchers explicitly tried to avoid counting people who “died for any reason, like old age.”

Hours after the study was released in late August, the government of Puerto Rico revised its estimated death toll to 2,975 people.

Even if Mr. Trump has expressed doubts, at least five other independent analyses — using a number of methodologies and examining varying amounts of time elapsed since the hurricane made landfall — pin the toll around 1,000 or more, magnitudes larger than the six to 18 deaths he cited.

That figure appears to refer to Puerto Rico’s initial estimate of the toll at 16, which was released several days after the storm made landfall on the island on Sept. 20, 2017. It was updated to 34 in early October 2017, a day after Mr. Trump visited the island. The estimate was again revised to 64 in December 2017, and Puerto Rico announced it would commission a recount that same month.

The “very large numbers” from independent analyses — not Democrats — began to emerge in fall and winter 2017, but the official estimates were met with widespread skepticism from news organizations and public health experts from the start. And even Puerto Rican officials have acknowledged that their tallies underestimated the number of deaths from Hurricane Maria since the initial count.

John Mutter, a professor at Columbia University and expert on disaster mortality, said he never bought into the official tally, given how difficult it is to evacuate from an island.

“No serious academic who studies this stuff thought that was plausible. It was implausibly small,” he said. In contrast, Mr. Mutter said, the George Washington University estimate and others like it produced much more believable counts.

Here’s a timeline of how the official tally has shifted, when independent estimates were published and how Puerto Rican officials have responded:

  • Sept. 20, 2017: Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, and knocked out power across the island.

  • Sept. 25, 2017: The government of Puerto Rico estimated that 16 people died from the storm.

  • Sept. 28, 2017: In an article published in The Miami Herald, Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism found dozens of victims who were unaccounted for and reported that the death toll was “much higher” than the official tally. A few days later, Puerto Rico’s public safety secretary acknowledged that the official count was low.

  • Oct. 3, 2017: President Trump visited the island and compared death tolls from Hurricane Maria to Hurricane Katrina: “Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud. Everybody around this table and everybody watching can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico.”

  • Oct. 4, 2017: After Mr. Trump left, Puerto Rico updated the death toll to 34, with an official telling reporters that the figure was most likely not final.

  • Nov. 20, 2017: CNN contacted 112 funeral homes, about half of the funeral homes on the island, and estimated that at least 499 people had died because of the storm.

  • Nov. 21, 2017: Alexis R. Santos, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University, and an independent demographer estimated that 518 more people died in Puerto Rico in September than the expected level based on historical patterns of death.

  • Dec. 7, 2017: The Center for Investigative Journalism reported that at least 985 people died in the 40 days after Hurricane Maria, using methodology similar to Mr. Santos’s paper.

  • Dec. 8, 2017: The New York Times estimated 1,052 excess deaths across the island from Sept. 20 through the end of October, again using similar methodology.

  • Dec. 9, 2017: Puerto Rico updated the death toll to 64.

  • Dec. 18, 2017: Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló of Puerto Rico ordered a review and recount of the number of deaths attributable to the hurricane.

  • February 2018: Researchers from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez estimated a storm-related death toll of 822 from the day of landfall to the end of October.

  • Feb. 28, 2018: Mr. Santos updated his findings to 1,230 deaths from September to November.

  • April 5, 2018: A report from the National Hurricane Center noted that “hundreds of additional indirect deaths in Puerto Rico” beyond the official toll at the time “may eventually be attributed to Maria’s aftermath pending the results of an official government review.”

  • May 29, 2018: Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, based on interviews with people in more than 3,000 households, estimated storm-related deaths could range from 800 to 8,000 people, with a midrange estimate of 4,600.

  • June 1, 2018: Mr. Rosselló, in an interview with CNN, acknowledged that the official estimate was low: “We had established that this number was going to be much, much higher than what we had as an official tally.”

  • Aug. 9, 2018: The government of Puerto Rico admitted in a report requesting funding from Congress that 1,427 more people died from September to December 2017 than in previous years.

  • Aug. 28, 2018: George Washington University released its study, and the government of Puerto Rico updated it official estimate to 2,975 deaths as a result of the disaster and its effects.

Source: George Washington University, John Mutter, The New York Times, The Miami Herald, CNN, research from Alexis R. Santos, Center for Investigative Journalism, National Hurricane Center, whitehouse.gov, The Royal Statistical Society

Linda Qiu is a fact-check reporter, based in Washington. She came to the Times in 2017 from the fact-checking service PolitiFact. @ylindaqiu

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A20 of the New York edition with the headline: President Accuses Democrats of Inflating Puerto Rico Death Toll. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe



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