Mr President, More Than 3,000 Deaths is Not an “Incredible, Unsung Success”

September 13, 2018 | 1:58 pm
Juan Declet-Barreto
Juan Declet-Barreto
Senior Social Scientist for Climate Vulnerability

Last year, I thought throwing rolls of paper towels at victims of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico was the lowest that President Trump could go in disrespecting and failing the people of Puerto Rico in the midst of the climatic catastrophe that was personal to me and my family on the island.

But this morning he went even lower with his tweets denying the death toll from Hurricane María in Puerto Rico, adding insult to injury to an enormous disaster exacerbated by a failure to prepare and to help the island recover. The day before that, in his characteristic self-congratulatory tone, he touted his administration’s handling of Hurricane María an ”incredible, unsung success”.  The dead don’t sing Mr. President. The aftermath of the storm left Puerto Rico without power for months, unleashed a humanitarian crisis for more than 3 million US citizens, and was responsible for more than 3,000 deaths.

Once again, Mr. Trump has shown callous disregard for human life, minimizing the toll of human suffering during and after the hurricane. The President’s falsehoods are rebutted by scientific reports that present evidence that lack of electricity to power hospitals, medical equipment, and refrigerate insulin, combined with a collapsed public health system and inadequate protocols to ascribe deaths to post-hurricane conditions, contributed to the estimates that more than 3,000 Puerto Ricans lost their lives because of Hurricane María (I previously reported on that here).

Besides the President’s statements and tweets being an affront to human dignity, they also show a callous disregard for the truth and the importance of accurate information in our democracy. Although this administration has a pattern of attacking or ignoring science since day one, this is one of the most extreme examples – we can’t expect to be able to solve problems if our leaders choose to deny facts and attack the evidence.

Sobering fact: Just two days ago, a whopping nine simultaneous tropical storms were shown in a satellite image composite. As my colleague Kristy Dahl recently reported, we already know that the expected storm surge from storms like Hurricane Florence will be amplified because of sea-level rise, that our atmosphere can hold more moisture, and that the potential for extreme rainfall during hurricanes is increased. It is also expected that coastal, rural, and low-income communities in the Carolinas and Virginia will be among the hardest hit by Florence.

I watch with worry as  Florence continues to barrel towards the US Southeastern coast and Typhoon Mangkhut in the Pacific threatens 10 million in the Philippines. I wonder how the President’s tweeted falsehoods will impact our federal agencies’ capacity to respond to what is likely a disastrous situation for millions of Americans. María taught us many things, among them that when the President uses Twitter to minimize disasters, ignore science, and disparage people in harm’s way, this effectively lower the urgency with which federal agencies will respond to such disasters.

As a new hurricane season threatens the US, we need to be able to trust that the government is willing and able to acknowledge the facts and act to protect us. President Trump’s offensive and false tweets today undermine public trust.

Listen to Juan Declet-Barreto talk about Puerto Rico, one year after Hurricane Maria on the Got Science? Podcast: