In what’s presumably an attempt to frame the aftermath of Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria as “Trump’s Katrina,” a new study that’s made its rounds in the media claims the White House lied about the death toll in Puerto Rico. While the official death count from the hurricane was 64, a new Harvard study claims the real figure is 4,645 deaths.
— AM Joy w/Joy Reid (@amjoyshow) June 2, 2018
San Juan’s anti-Trump mayor Carmen Cruz is also running with the statistic too.
Never forgotten! Never again! pic.twitter.com/9vym7egCid
— Carmen Yulín Cruz (@CarmenYulinCruz) May 30, 2018
The message we’re supposed to glean here is obvious: the Trump Administration’s response to the crisis in Puerto Rico was so inadequate that the death toll was 70 times higher than reported. And, we would’ve never known about it if it weren’t for one study. The study is so bogus that even the Washington Post published a rebuttal to it pointing out the nonsensical methodology.
There’s a problem with the “4,645” death toll: 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.
Four other separate analyses estimated the real death toll in Puerto Rico at roughly 1,000 – still much higher than official estimates. But, that’s roughly a fifth of what the Harvard study claims. When it came to calculating deaths, the Harvard study relied on surveying, while the four other reports were based on actual data.
To further illustrate just how sloppy the Harvard study’s methodology is, the researchers surveyed a random sample of 3,299 households (9,522 people), and those participants identified 38 people who died after the hurricane through December. Of the 38, three died directly from medical complications, illness or trauma because of the hurricane. Twelve died because of the interruption of medical services in the aftermath. The other 23 deaths, or 60% of them, were not related to the hurricane.
While the death toll in Puerto Rico is likely higher than officially estimated (probably around 1,000), that’s nowhere near enough to justify the hyperbolic comparisons some in the media have made. That includes claiming that more died in Puerto Rico from the hurricane than in the Iraq War or on 9/11. Nor was this part of some White House effort to “conceal” the “true” number of deaths, as some have given the impression. Their estimates are only as good as the data Puerto Rico’s government is giving them.
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