Hurricane Maria Now Among Worst Disasters in U.S. History

Photo Credit: Thais Llorca/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
August 30, 2018
Updated 6mo ago

By Carlo Versano

Both Puerto Rico and the federal government were "woefully unprepared" before, during, and after Hurricane Maria's landfall last September, said Enrique Fernández-Toledo, director of Puerto Rico Relief and Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress.

A year after the storm swept the island, the public finally has a realistic account of the destruction.

According to a series of studies by George Washington University using government data at the request of Puerto Rican officials, 2,975 people died as a result of the storm. That is a far cry from the original tally of 64 official deaths confirmed by the territory's government back in December. It also counts the storm among the most lethal disasters, both man-made and natural, in modern American history.

So why did it take so long to get an accurate account of the storm's toll?

"It was a denial of reality for a very long time in the face of a mountain of evidence," Fernández-Toledo said Thursday in an interview on Cheddar.

The report concluded that the delay was partly an issue of classification: the island's medical staff was untrained in certifying deaths that were indirectly caused by the storm. For instance, an elderly man who died because he couldn't get to a hospital the week after Maria made landfall would not necessarily have been immediately counted as a causality of the hurricane.

The report accounts for deaths through February of this year, though "people have continued to die as a result of conditions that were not related" well after that, Fernández-Toledo said ー mostly due to decimated infrastructure and inaccessible medical services.

FEMA, for its part, has acknowledged it was under-prepared for Maria.

In a separate interview on Cheddar Thursday, FEMA's assistant director of the National Preparedness Directorate Katie Fox said the agency tasked with managing disaster response would implement changes, like "better involving the private sector," following the latest report.

President Trump said on Wednesday, the day after the report was released, that his administration did a "fantastic job" in Puerto Rico.

For full interview click here.