In the latest episode of White House braggadocio, President Trump boasted Friday about his fantastic record in Puerto Rico “with respect to loss of life” following Hurricane Maria.
“The loss of life, it’s always tragic. But it’s been incredible,” he said on CNN’s Newsroom with Brooke Baldwin. “The results that we’ve had with respect to loss of life. People can’t believe how successful that has been, relatively speaking.”
Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan, had a starkly different take on the situation on the ground.
“This is a ‘people are dying’ story,” she told CNN Friday morning. “… not a good news story.” Her comments seemed intended to correct the record after acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke claimed Thursday afternoon that a “limited number of deaths that have taken place,” and overall, Puerto Rico was “a good news story.”
In fact, the official death toll remains at just 16 and hasn’t been updated since Tuesday. But reports from officials like Cruz and investigative journalists in Puerto Rico of morgues filled with bodies and people in life-threatening health emergencies suggest the number is much higher. And the desperate pleas for help that continued Friday from Cruz, as well as other Puerto Ricans in more isolated parts of the country, suggest that far more is needed from the Trump administration’s response to the unfolding humanitarian crisis.
“I will do what I never thought I was going to do,” Cruz said in a press conference Friday afternoon. “I am begging, begging anyone who can hear us to save us from dying. If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency.”
There’s good reason to believe the Hurricane Maria death toll in Puerto Rico is out of date
The Puerto Rican government is in charge of counting the number of deaths from the storm, FEMA officials said in a press call Friday, and its most recent figure of 16 was released on Wednesday.
But reporters with the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, for its initials in Spanish) in Puerto Rico said Thursday in a story in the Miami Herald they had “confirmed that there are dozens of hurricane-related deaths and the number could rise to the hundreds.”
The journalists had spent much of the previous few days calling morgues around the country. “The dead are at the hospital morgues, which are at capacity and in remote places where the government has yet to go. In many cases, families are unaware of the deaths,” they wrote.
Even Puerto Rico Health Secretary Rafael Rodríguez-Mercado told the CPI reporters “he documented seven additional hurricane-related deaths at three hospitals on the island’s western region he was able to visit on Monday,” and those had not been included in the official count of 16. It’s unclear why the government is lagging in updating the figure.
Other disaster experts have told Vox that given the scale of crisis on the island with ongoing food, water, and fuel shortages, the death toll is likely to reach into the hundreds.
Trump and members of the White House, meanwhile, have been defending their response to Maria following criticism that they have not reacted quickly enough to the devastation on the US territory that’s home to 3.4 million American citizens.
Trump at first seemed hesitant to acknowledge that Puerto Rico (as well as the US Virgin Islands) is part of the US and entitled to the same aid Florida and Texas got after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma struck them. On Twitter, he even suggested that Puerto Rico may not be worth fixing.
Now relief efforts are currently underway, and Puerto Ricans are being reached with essential supplies like food, fuel, and clean water. As I reported earlier today, progress is slowly being made. On Tuesday, only 11 of Puerto Rico’s 69 hospitals had power or a fuel supply. By Thursday, FEMA reported that 57 hospitals were operational.
Getting hospitals up and running will certainly save lives, as will delivering food to the neediest communities and getting communications and power infrastructure back up and running. But it’s way too early for Trump to be bragging about lives saved when thousands of people are still in need of lifesaving supplies and medical care and we don’t know how many victims Hurricane Maria has claimed so far.