Media Spread Fake Hurricane Maria Death Toll, Blame Trump, Ignore Facts

A woman places one of the hundreds of shoes in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rico Capitol, in San Juan, Friday, June 1, 2018. Puerto Rico's Institute of Statistics announced that it has sued the U.S. territory's health department and demographic registry seeking …
AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

Eight months after Hurricane Maria made landfall on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, the effort to restore the island continues. The federal government has obligated $2.2 billion in federal aid, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and countless other contracted boots are still on the ground.

These efforts to aid Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria have happened on President Donald Trump’s watch.

But if you read the headlines, watch the videos, and listen to the soundbites from the anti-Trump, left-wing media, you might not know what is really going on in the U.S. territory.

In fact, the media is spreading fake news about a Harvard study that even the liberal Washington Post warns to be “very, very careful” about accepting its claim that 4,645 people died in Puerto Rico:

There’s a problem: This is not a verified number, unlike body counts in wars. The Harvard study offers only an estimate – a midpoint along a broad range of possibilities. It is not based on death records, only estimates of deaths from people who were interviewed in a survey.

In effect, the researchers took one number – 15 deaths identified from a survey of 3,299 households – and extrapolated that to come up with 4,645 deaths across the island. That number came with a very large caveat, clearly identified in the report, but few news media accounts bothered to explain the nuances.

“Their sampling appears to be well done, but relatively small for their purpose, leading to a large margin of error,” said Roberto Rivera, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez who co-wrote the study that calculated a range of 605 to 1,039 deaths, the Post reported. “Most reports on the new study have focused on the number 4,645.”

“But the authors of the paper included a margin-of-error-based confidence interval: 800 to 8,500,” Rivera said. “This interval is the most important part of their results.”

“First, it is evidence that the death toll is much greater than 64. Secondly, it shows that the margin of error is very large,” Rivera said.

The Post goes on to detail why the report is suspect and even includes a tweet that shows how the number of deaths compares with much greater tragedies.

The Harvard study was taken between September 20 through December 31 — a period that extended weeks past the storm.

Here is a sampling of media headlines at the start of the new hurricane season:

— “Perspectives: Hurricane Maria Tragedy In Puerto Rico Is Trump’s Katrina; FEMA’s Role Is Only Supportive” (Kaiser Health News)

— “San Juan Mayor Calls Trump’s ‘Total Neglect’ Of Puerto Rico A Violation Of Human Rights” (Huffington Post)

— “Puerto Rico will be an enduring stain on Trump’s presidency” (CNN)

— “As new hurricane season starts, remember the 4,645 Puerto Rico deaths” (USA Today)

— “How can the U.S. atone for 4,600 dead in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria?” (Houston Chronicle)

— “On Trump’s watch, the single most deadly natural disaster in modern America” (CNN)

“Now we all know the truth,” the Chronicle editorial said. “The newest estimate of Puerto Rico’s storm deaths exceeds 4,600 — 70 times higher than the official statistic, according to a newly-published Harvard University study.”

“It is a death toll more than double that of Hurricane Katrina — the Louisiana disaster that exposed the incompetence of both FEMA and the entire George W. Bush administration,” the Chronicle editorial said. “The estimated casualties even exceed deaths from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.”

National Public Radio (NPR) sent one of its hosts to the island to document all the bad news it could round up, including interviewing a journalist who blamed Trump and the people who voted for him for hardships he said are ongoing on the island.

“I just think that Mr. Trump came here, but he wanted to talk to his base, and he’s always focused on his base,” Jay Fonseca, who works for Telemundo NBC and Univision Radio, said. “So he came here just to say that he came and – but he wasn’t really – we weren’t that important.”

“This is something – in my opinion, you can tell that the president thinks that his base don’t believe we’re part of America,” Fonseca said in the NPR report. “He doesn’t believe we are part of the United States. And we were invaded by the states.”

“We didn’t ask,” Fonseca said. “I mean, we were invaded. It was an invasion in 1898, and then we were basically property.”

“And that’s what we are,” Fonseca said. “We’re like a farm. So that’s what we are for them. And that’s how I see the president.”

There seems to be, however, a lack of headlines and reports about what Trump’s FEMA, Congress, and the United States have done for the people of Puerto Rico, aside from the $2.2 billion in financial aid.

First and foremost, as American citizens, Puerto Ricans are free to live in the United States and they are coming here in record numbers, according to the Economist:

The island’s government reckons that by the end of 2018, 200,000 people may have left for the mainland; surveys suggest that many of them will stay away for good.

This would be an acceleration of a trend. Since 2005, when Puerto Rico suffered an economic downturn, Puerto Ricans have been leaving for other parts of America. Between 2005 and 2013 Puerto Rico’s GDP per capita as a proportion of American GDP per capita fell from 59% to 52%. Over that same period, the island lost 5.5% of its population. Pew Research Centre estimates that nearly 500,000 people left over the past decade.

FEMA issued a notice on its website in March explaining some of the facts about the Trump administration’s role in Puerto Rico’s recovery:

— More than 1.1 million households and businesses in Puerto Rico have sought help from FEMA.

— FEMA approved more than $1.1 billion in grants for individuals and families, including some $620 million for housing repairs and about $510 million for things like personal property losses, damaged or destroyed vehicles, and medical, dental, funeral, and childcare costs incurred from the natural disaster.

— “Approximately 130,000 homeowners and renters have received financial rental assistance and nearly 10,000 survivors are currently staying at hotels and motels through the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program.”

— From the time the hurricane struck on Sept. 20, 2017, to March of 2018, more than $1.1 billion in loans have been approved to help homeowners, renters, and businesses.

The FEMA website also has an abundance of information on preparing for another natural disaster that was last updated on May 31, 2018, including creating a family preparedness plan, stocking supplies, securing property, preparations for people with disabilities, and evacuation tips.

There also is scant reporting on the conditions in Puerto Rico that made it especially vulnerable to a deadly hurricane, including inferior infrastructure, including the electricity grid on the island.

Follow Penny Starr on Twitter.


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