The forgotten dead of Puerto Rico

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James Downie

On Friday night, the Puerto Rico Department of Health for the first time in six months released official mortality numbers related to Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island last September. The department counted at least 1,400 additional deaths on the island from September to December 2017 compared with the same period the previous year. That finding came three days after a Harvard University study was published that calculated some 4,600 additional deaths due to Maria. Both estimates are many times the official death count of 64 and suggest that Maria was one of the deadliest disasters in U.S. history.

Yet on the major Sunday talk shows — the purest distillation of what the media and political establishments consider worth discussing — not once was Puerto Rico mentioned. That is a disgrace.

Even before these new official and unofficial estimates, the federal and local response to the hurricane hasn’t been given the media attention it deserves. It took seven months to restore power on the island, bridges and roads were impassable for weeks or months, and hospitals were overwhelmed. All these factors hindered emergency and other medical services, and, as the authors of the Harvard study wrote, “interruption of medical care was the primary cause of sustained high mortality rates in the months after the hurricane.” Relief from the federal government has been a classic case of too little, too late. After Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005, Congress allocated more than $60 billion in aid within two weeks. (And the George W. Bush administration’s response to Katrina was still woeful even with all that funding.) After Hurricane Maria, Congress took almost five months to allocate a fraction of the $94 billion Puerto Rico’s government has estimated it needs.

But the new studies put the human toll in stark terms. A estimated death toll this large — and the fact that the bumbling response to the hurricane probably increased that toll — should be top-of-the-hour news for days. Yet when the Harvard study was released Tuesday, the big three cable news networks covered the story for 30 minutes — combined. They covered Roseanne Barr’s tweets and her show’s cancellation for more than 10 hours. The Sunday shows — ostensibly the cream of the crop — had a chance to improve on their weekday counterparts. They failed.

To be sure, the latest news about the Mueller probe, especially the Trump team’s breathtaking January letter, deserve plenty of coverage. But there’s only so much viewers can learn from Rudolph W. Giuliani’s ramblings or from Corey Lewandowski saying, “I’m not a lawyer.” And while Barr’s comments were certainly vile, surely key new information about a natural disaster that may have killed thousands of Americans is more important.

The U.S. has a long history of failing Puerto Rico. That’s unlikely to change until the island is granted statehood and can advocate itself in Congress instead of begging others for help. But however long that takes to happen, the media should not wait to value Puerto Ricans’ lives the same as those of all other Americans.