SAN JUAN— It’s been two months since San Juan’s mayor issued her first mayday call.
“People are dying in this country,” Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz pleaded to television cameras. “I am begging, begging anyone that can hear us to save us from dying.”
That was on Sept. 29, nine days after Hurricane Maria raked across Puerto Rico, pinning the island under a tangle of broken power lines, uprooted trees, and splintered homes. The power grid was in shambles and most of the island was incommunicado. The full extent of storm damage was still unknown, but early reports described the situation as “apocalyptic.”
At the time, the preliminary death toll was only 16, but information was spotty. Everyone knew the number would climb much, much higher.
Well…almost everyone. President Donald Trump liked the sound of 16. He was proud of that number. He touted it as mathematical proof that his handling of Hurricane Maria had been masterful—a perfect 10 out of 10, if he had to give himself a grade.
Trump turned the methodical and technical task of determining storm deaths into an act of political subversion. Arithmetic became an act of insubordination.
“Sixteen people versus in the thousands,” Trump boasted during his visit to Puerto Rico, comparing the death tolls from hurricanes Maria and Katrina. “You can be very proud of all of your people and all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud. Everybody watching can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico.”
That was the moment Trump politicized Puerto Rico’s death toll. He turned the island’s body count into a barometer to measure his own success as president.
In doing so, Trump turned the methodical and technical task of determining storm deaths into an act of political subversion. Arithmetic became an act of insubordination. Each new death added to the toll becomes another swipe at Trump’s ego, another challenge to his flawless handling of the storm.
Six weeks later, Puerto Rico’s death toll estimates vary wildly along political lines. Those who support Trump put the death toll in conservative double digits, while those who are critical of the president think it’s ten times higher than that.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who’s been mostly complimentary towards Trump, recently told us the death toll had leveled off at 51. He says his government has been very careful to tally all those who have died directly and indirectly due to the hurricane, and insists nobody is trying to hide any storm deaths.
“We’ve been very rigorous,” Governor Rosselló told Fusion’s Jorge Ramos during a recent sitdown interview for his new show, The Real America, premiering Nov. 21 on Fusion. The governor said the official death toll even includes someone who committed suicide after the storm and left a note expressing “shock about the destruction of their house.”
Although experts say there’s no magic cutoff date to stop tallying storm deaths, Rosselló seemed ready to stop counting after six weeks.
“In Puerto Rico, about 27,000 people die a year, so that means about more than 2,000 people die a month,” Rosselló told Ramos. “It’s been a little over a month after the hurricane, and of course people die of other circumstances.”
San Juan’s mayor disagrees heartily. Cruz, a leading critic of the president and his handling of the storm, recently told CNN she thinks the death toll could be ten times higher than the governor’s number— closer to 500.
Mayor Cruz claims the real death toll is being disguised as “natural deaths” —a concern first raised by BuzzFeed News last month.
No other federal agency has weighed in to settle the death toll dispute. A FEMA spokesman told Fusion the matter is a “local issue.” He said FEMA is tasked with hurricane response and recovery, not determining how many people died in the storm. FEMA does receive funeral-assistance requests for coffins, but the spokesman said he couldn’t provide that number and, even if he could, it wouldn’t be an accurate reflection of the total storm deaths.
Ultimately, the real number of Puerto Rican storm deaths should be revealed in the law of averages, researchers say. People with experience calculating death tolls from other natural disasters say an accurate tally can usually be determined by looking at death registry statistics over a long period of time and comparing them to the period immediately after a storm. Any spike from the average can be blamed on the storm and reasonably included in the death toll.
Athena Kolbe, a researcher who worked in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake, says a helpful way of thinking about death tolls is by asking: “How many people died who would not have died otherwise?”
So even if bodies were buried or cremated without a proper medical examination, it’s still possible to determine an accurate death toll by working backwards from averages. And so far, the numbers are not looking good for Puerto Rico. On Nov. 10, Puerto Rican officials announced that 472 more people died on the island in September 2017 than in September 2016, which would be consistent with those who predict the death toll is already in the hundreds.
“Puerto Rico is an interesting case because it is actually possible to find out the exact numbers of people who died,” Kolbe said. She notes that Puerto Rico’s census information and Social Security registries mean the island has much better data than places like Haiti, so researchers could determine a much more accurate death toll “if they wanted to put the time and energy into it.”
But it’s not as simple as comparing this year’s statistics to last year’s, says John Mutter, a professor and natural disaster expert at Columbia University who wrote “Disaster Profiteers” after Hurricane Katrina. Mutter says researchers should look at a complete 20-year data set to determine an accurate death toll from a natural disaster.
He says it’s normal to see a spike in deaths for a month or so after a big storm, followed by an extended dip in deaths until the numbers average out again. The dip, Mutter says, reflects the number of elderly people whose deaths were accelerated by the storm, but would have died anyway over the next several months. The statistical phenomenon is known, rather morbidly, as “harvesting.”
In the case of Puerto Rico, which is still struggling to reconnect its power grid two months after the storm, the uptick in deaths could continue longer than normal, experts say.
“I would say that people who died today because they don’t have access to their medication, or they have some sort of medical problems and can’t use the medical equipment because they have no power…those people are disaster deaths which are attributed to the storm,” Kolbe said.
Post-storm suicides should also count towards the death toll, Mutter adds. “Desperate drug addicts who commit suicide because they can’t get drugs, or people who become depressed and kill themselves after losing their house and job” are all deaths related to the storm, Mutter said.
Eventually, Mutter says, the real death toll will surface through the political morass, but it could take another several months to reveal itself.
“We’ll have the real death toll number by the time most people forget about it,” Mutter said.
Puerto Rico, however, will never forget.
Tune in to Fusion Nov. 21 for the premiere of Jorge Ramos’ The Real America from Puerto Rico.