The Fight Over Numbers And The True Significance Of Hurricane María
Rep. Julio Gonzalez, M.D., J.D.
On September 20, 2017, one of the most cataclysmic natural events ever to affect the United States or its territories struck Puerto Rico with relentless fury. It was a hurricane like no other, organized into a perfect eye and packing sustained winds of over 155 miles per hour. The assault lasted the greater part of the day, destroying the island's infrastructure and leaving 80,000 people without power.
When all was said and done, the damage to the island and its residents was virtually incomprehensible. Roads were impenetrable. Homes were uninhabitable. There was no water to drink, and food was unobtainable. But amazingly, only 16 people perished. By December, that number was increased to 64, still a very fortuitous count.
The devastation, predictably led to an egress of Puerto Rico's inhabitants, and the population dropped from approximately 3,327,917 to 3,048,173 inhabitants. Many emigrated to Florida, changing its demographics, perhaps permanently.
The recovery and rescue efforts also faced seemingly insurmountable challenges. An island situated far from the Continental 48, delivery of supplies and assistance was hampered. Many of the materials were brought in by boat, which had prepositioned themselves within striking distance of the island even before the hurricane hit. Even after the supply ships arrived, delivery of those assets inland was impossible by vehicular traffic, and helicopters were employed. Unlike Hurricanes Harvey and Irma immediately preceding María, there were some significant setbacks to the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, but thankfully, at least at the beginning, massive loss of life did not appear to be one of them.
Then, in May, 2018, a Harvard study reported that the loss of life from Hurricane María was actually 4,645. Many met the estimate with disbelief. How can the number of dead rise from 64 to over 4000 without any prior indication? And if 4,645 people had perished from Hurricane María, where were all the bodies?
The Harvard researchers admitted that their study was flawed, as its methods were rudimentary and primarily based on surveys. Although it received some attention, the study had a limited impact.
The Puerto Rican government commissioned another study, this one through George Washington University. The study was designed to look at three things: 1) "assess the excess total mortality adjusting for demographic variables and seasonality. . . "; 2) evaluate the mortality reporting methods employed by the authorities and make recommendations for improvement; and 3) assess crisis and mortality communications plans and actions.
The George Washington University report was more involved, and reported that 2,975 people perished as a result of Hurricane María. Although the study made observations about the other issues for which it was commissioned, for obvious reasons, it is the first goal with which we will concern ourselves, but, as will become evident, the mortality reporting methods reviewed in the second goal will play prominently.
The reality is that we will never know how many people died in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane María. For many, based on how they perceive the question, the most accurate number is 64. But the reality cuts much deeper. Hurricane María initiated a series of devastating events that did not end when the winds died. They were events that went far beyond supplies and getting assistance to those in need. The events dealt with the destruction of a society's infrastructure, with those things that people depend on to live; things like roads, healthcare, communications, environmental controls, and transportation.
For Puerto Rico, the devastation was colossal, changing society for a protracted period of time, if not forever.
And it really was not Trump's fault, or anybody else's. What Puerto Rico endured was an existential threat that tore through every societal fiber.
There are many lessons to be learned from Puerto Rico. Yes, many of them have to do with hurricane preparedness, recovery efforts and rescue operations. But many others deal with issues much greater than those. They deal with what it means to have a functional society and what it means to have systems in place upon which we all depend. In short, the Puerto Rican experience teaches us about what it means to be a human being in a complex and interdependent society, and it's high time the media, the politicians, and even our own neighbors, stop our bickering and begin the process of learning from them, Otherwise all those deaths, however many they truly were, would have been in vain.
Dr. Julio Gonzalez is an orthopaedic surgeon and lawyer living in Venice, Florida. He is the author of The Federalist Pages and serves in the Florida House of Representatives. He can be reached through www.thefederalistpages.comto arrange a lecture or book signing.