Death count debates overshadow the real story: Hurricane Maria was partly a human-made disaster

Last September, President Donald Trump told Puerto Ricans they should be grateful Hurricane Maria had not caused a “real catastrophe like Katrina.”

However, mounting evidence now reveals the death toll for Maria far surpasses initial estimates. New research puts the number close to 3,000, adjusted up from just a few dozen when the president made his now infamous remark. This is an estimate, but it is virtually certain that the number is in the thousands. The president has denied these numbers, but without offering any evidence to support his claims.

The devastating truth is that most of the deaths in Puerto Rico were avoidable. The majority of fatalities were not caused by the hurricane’s force, but by the failure of the U.S. disaster response system. Many people died in the days and months after Maria because they lacked access to basic lifesaving goods and services.

The president’s comparison between the Katrina disaster and Puerto Rico’s plight after Maria highlights a major underlying problem. Using fatalities to gauge the magnitude of disaster assumes that all disasters are made the same. The disaster following Hurricane Maria shows us that this is fundamentally untrue.

Understanding this fact is necessary to grapple with how such a disaster was allowed to unfold on U.S. soil, despite one of the biggest and most well-prepared disaster response forces in the world.

Fatality counts are virtually useless

More than 3.3 million Americans were caught in Hurricane Maria’s path. Almost all of the deaths occurred in the aftermath of the hurricane.

Compare that to Katrina, when a large proportion of the fatalities occurred immediately during the hurricane. Failing levies caused many to drown as their homes were engulfed in water.

If judged only by the official and known death toll during the first few days or weeks, Puerto Rico appeared to have escaped a catastrophe. In reality, the early declaration that Puerto Rico had escaped catastrophe and that the federal government had already done its job may have been deadlier than the hurricane itself.