Almost a year later, the Hurricane Maria death toll in Puerto Rico now stands at 2,975.
That’s one heck of a jump from the 64 originally reported by the government — and the most damning evidence of how tragically inadequate the Trump administration’s response was to the catastrophic national disaster.
It’s also an indictment on the island’s leadership, which tried to hide the scope of the devastation by stubbornly clinging to wildly inaccurate figures, even after scientific researchers and respected media like the New York Times covering the aftermath were reporting differently.
Almost 3,000 people died in the months following the September disaster, the government now acknowledges. They were mostly old, sick and poor people without access to the medical care and essential supplies they needed to survive.
That’s 1,000 more deaths than in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana, killing some 1,200, which President Donald Trump called a “real catastrophe” after Maria in one of his efforts to downplay Puerto Rico’s tragedy.
Let the astonishing statistic for a small island of 3.7 million people sink in, and ask: Would anyone be congratulating themselves on the rescue and recovery job done if this had happened in Florida or anywhere else in the continental United States?
Yet despite fresh evidence, Trump remains in complete denial — and, when asked if he should reconsider his administration’s response to the disaster in light of the new numbers. he delivered more self-congratulations.
“I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico,” Trump told reporters Wednesday. “We’re still helping Puerto Rico. The governor is an excellent guy and he’s very happy with the job we’ve done. We have put billions and billions of dollars into Puerto Rico and it was a very tough one. Don’t forget their electric plant was dead before the hurricane. If you look back on your records, you’ll see that that plant was dead, it was shut, it was bankrupt, it was out of business. They owed a tremendous amount of money. They had it closed up. And then, when the hurricane came, people said, ‘What are we going to do about electricity?’ That wasn’t really the hurricane. That was done before the hurricane. But we’ve put a lot money and a lot of effort into Puerto Rico and I think most of the people in Puerto Rico really appreciate what we’ve done. But Puerto Rico had a lot of difficulties before Puerto Rico got hit.”
So, according to Trump, Puerto Rico had no electricity before the hurricane. Lights weren’t on in the island. Hospitals had no power, etc., etc. That’s a whopper of a lie.
Before Maria, the island had an outdated power grid — and deep financial problems — but people weren’t dying by the thousands for lack of essentials, like diabetes medication, dialysis treatments, food and water, and from stifling heat. Nor is it impossible for a country like the United States with extremely well-funded military operations to get quick aid to an island just because it’s surrounded by water, as Trump said in his childish explanation of why it took so long to appropriately respond to the disaster.
As for those billions Trump says he’s given Puerto Rico, $38 billion was allocated to mitigate a catastrophe of historic proportions, but disbursement has been extremely slow.
“The administration killed the Puerto Ricans with neglect,” San Juan Mayor Yulín Cruz told CNN. “The Trump administration led us to believe they were helping when they weren’t up to par, and they didn’t allow other countries to help us.
“Shame on President Trump,” she added. “Shame on President Trump for not even once, not even yesterday, just saying, ‘Look, I grieve with the people of Puerto Rico.’”
Not to exempt Puerto Rico’s own local failures from responsibility, but she couldn’t be more on point. Trump showed no sympathy toward suffering U.S. citizens — and plenty of contempt, at one point calling Puerto Ricans slackers.
And if Trump, still holding amateur hour in Washington halfway into his presidency, thought that calling Puerto Rico’s governor “an excellent guy” Wednesday was going to stymie the fresh outrage the revised numbers that George Washington University researchers are bringing to the forefront, he was sorely mistaken.
Governor Ricardo Rosselló — a Republican who hosted all the politicians streaming into the devastated island for the photo op and played nice with Trump, even through Trump’s humiliating paper-towel throw at a crowd — was finally disgusted enough to respond without polite deference.
Trump’s response to the disaster never came close to “fantastic,” he said in a press conference in San Lorenzo.
Puerto Rico was treated like “a colony,” Rosselló said. Aid was delayed in comparison to how other emergencies are treated in the mainland. “The response was slower and the bureaucracy more excessive,” rationing the amount of help that reached people and hindering recovery operations, he said.
Puerto Ricans received $2,993 per family from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the island’s daily El Nuevo Día reported. Yet those affected by Katrina, Harvey in Texas, Sandy in New Jersey and other disasters got as much as $6,987 per household.
If there was ever really one, the political Trump-Roselló love fest is over.
Maria is Trump’s Katrina — another stain on his presidency — and no one on the island is going to spare him the truth.
The least the president could do was show some contrition — anything but issue himself praise and congratulations.
Follow Santiago on Twitter, @fabiolasantiago