I’ve talked to people in Puerto Rico who lost loved ones during Hurricane Maria. I’ve interviewed whole extended families struggling to locate one another and fearing for the worst, clinging to sporadic WhatsApp updates and making daily pilgrimages across the island to tiny archipelagos of cellphone service. I’ve heard stories of cousins who disappeared and people in nursing homes or on dialysis for whom the shock of the storm and the attrition of life without electricity proved deadly. I talked to doctors who were overwhelmed with critical and dying patients, and who soldiered on through darkness. There are pictures in the papers of the deceased, and as I’ve written about here, a slew of studies has attempted to capture just how many people did die. The exact number has been in contention, and no amount of exactness can quantify the exact scale of human loss. But what researchers, the Puerto Rican government, the Puerto Rican people, and people of any level of discernment agree on is that the number is large, and the scale is truly tragic.
The president of the United States is not one of those people of discernment. On Wednesday morning Donald Trump tweeted: “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” referring to the most recent study finding that 2,975 people died as a result of the storm. “When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000,” he continued. In a follow-up tweet, he picked up the thread. “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico,” he said.
Fact-checking is insufficient to counter the staggering callousness and falsity of Trump’s tweets. The Democratic Party didn’t commission the report saying that around 3,000 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria. Rather, the study was initiated by the Puerto Rican Government, and conducted by researchers at George Washington University and the University of Puerto Rico. Even the island’s own woefully inadequate official death toll—the reason it pursued an academic study—stood at 64 for most of the past year, many times higher than what the president acknowledges as the high end of the death count.
Trump has no regard for facts or studies, and it’s unclear exactly where in his daily siphoning of sycophancy he picked up the figures in his tweets. But his contentions mirror some rising sentiment among commentators on the right that academic studies are somehow illegitimate measures of deaths and part of a partisan ploy. A Breitbart News report by Joel B. Pollak in August criticized the methods of the most recent study and invoked the political fallout from Hurricane Katrina against President George W. Bush in 2005. “The government of Puerto Rico commissioned the GWU study, and Governor Rosselló was keen to accept its findings,” Pollak wrote, “partly to deflect criticism of his administration’s handling of the hurricane and its aftermath.” No source was given for this statement of fact, but it and similar critiques appear to pinpoint both methodological error and partisan bias as reasons to not trust the latest data.
Except there’s no reason to believe either of those things exist. One criticism parroted by Trump of the study is that it counted among its total many people who weren’t actually killed by the hurricane, but who might have died of “old age” months after the storm hit. But the method of counting “excess deaths”—a global standard in measuring conflicts or disasters that have uncertain boundary points—does account for the usual amount of people who die of natural causes, and only counts the number above that amount as attributable to the storm.
The idea that the scope of any hurricane ends when the winds themselves have died down betrays a stooge’s understanding of a disaster. Rational people, and those who’ve been through calamities, understand that cholera outbreaks after major storms are part of the catastrophe. That principle is applied to America’s recollection of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as people who die later from inhalation of toxic dust are added to the World Trade Center memorial. It is not a stretch of logic or science to understand that the deaths of people on dialysis from a lack of electricity in the week after the storm, or waterborne illness after the storm contaminated drinking-water sources, are attributable to Hurricane Maria. From the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane to Katrina and beyond, uncertainty and some measure of extrapolation have been present in every official measure of deaths from major disasters, as is the inclusion of indirect deaths and those caused some time after the actual incident passes. The partisan spin comes not in those elements, but in demanding that a hard count be provided in order to be recognized.
It’s easy to see why Trump, a person who sees a partisan conspiracy in every single criticism, would gravitate to this brand of denialism. Indeed, denialism is part of the reason the death toll is so high in the first place. From the beginning, the president has trumpeted the success of his administration’s effort, even as efforts on the ground by multiple levels of government failed. He has complained over and over that Puerto Rico—an easy flight away from D.C.—is too far away. In October, during his ill-fated visit to the wounded island, Trump favorably compared the death toll to Katrina’s, saying only “16 versus literally thousands of people” had died. He toured mostly wealthier neighborhoods that had not suffered the kind of fallout that other areas in Puerto Rico had. He gleefully tossed out paper towels at a supply-distribution center like a game-show host. There is nothing in the arc of Trump’s response to the island’s woes that suggests anything other than self-delusion, a self-delusion that unfortunately colored the official response.
Accordingly, any attempts to make the disaster of Hurricane Maria bigger than Trump wants it to be are dismissed. Most deaths don’t really count. The science is bad. It’s someone else’s fault. It’s all part of some grand conspiracy to delegitimize his administration and make him and his supporters appear racist or callous. Show me the people who died. These are all strains reminiscent of other kinds of denialism of disasters, human mediated or not. When facts are inconvenient, they must be demolished.
Every thinking American can see how the short term will play out. Trump will double down, probably to the point of actually denying further support for the island. He’ll begin the work of short-circuiting whatever recovery exists, simply because acknowledging the true scope of Maria after today would mean admitting his falsehoods. The thousands of Puerto Ricans awaiting some formal acknowledgement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the form of funeral vouchers will likely be stiffed, and further efforts to make a more resilient island and perhaps investigate exactly what went wrong will be ignored. Now that Donald Trump, the holder of the highest office in the land, has officially given the imprimatur of his office to the false belief that the disaster Puerto Ricans know to be Hurricane Maria essentially didn’t exist, people who’ve observed the past two years of politics might expect the rest of the country—at least the rest of his party—to follow suit.
The tragedy occurred, a tragedy was created, and a tragedy is still taking place. Above all, even in the crucible of floodwater and mile-long gas lines that characterized the island when I visited just after the storm, what many of the people I talked to first demanded were recognition and respect. They’ve never really gotten it. Many mainlanders still fail to even recognize that Puerto Ricans are citizens. The continuing response has been subpar and fraught with scandal. People on the island remained without power for the better part of a year. Even news of staggering death tolls has struggled to break through regular brush fires about Roseanne Barr and the NFL, midterms, campaign-finance violations, and the Russia probe. If this is a grand conspiracy to focus Americans on Puerto Rico and get them fired up against the president, it is a rather poor conspiracy, all things considered.
The fact is that thousands of people died in Maria and its aftermath—owing at least in part to a terrible federal response—and the fact is also that the president doesn’t care. From his paper-towel-throwing days on the island, that much has been clear, but what really matters is that the rest of the country now has cover to stop caring, too. To the people grieving, and to those left behind and suffering, and to those still in need of assistance, today President Trump announced that America is not on their side.