The White House on Wednesday shook off criticism of the emergency response to Hurricane Maria following a Harvard study that estimated the death toll from last year’s tragedy in Puerto Rico may have reached 5,000.
The official death toll from the storm is listed as 64, but Puerto Rican officials have maintained they believe the number is far higher.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, asked about the startling numbers in the Harvard study, defended FEMA’s response to the storm that slammed into the island as a Category 4 hurricane Sept. 20, two weeks after the island was ravaged by Hurricane Irma.
Sanders said the government responded to the storm with the largest FEMA effort in history.
“We have been supportive of Gov. Rosello’s efforts to ensure full accounting and transparency, and those who have suffered from this tragedy deserve nothing less,” she added.
National Nurse United, the nation’s largest union for registered nurses, said the study confirmed what volunteer nurses who went to the island in the days and weeks after the Sept. 20 landfall witnessed — residents “left to die” by a federal response that “failed its own American citizens.”
“Nurses on the ground saw that people were dying,” said Bonnie Castillo, executive director of the union. “Our volunteer RNs came back to the U.S. and said again and again, ‘The people of Puerto Rico are dying. Do something!'”
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who serves on the House Committee on Homeland Security, called the Harvard estimate “heartbreaking” and blasted the federal response to the storm as “woefully inadequate.”
FEMA assistant administrator Michael Byrne defended his agency’s effort before a House committee two months ago.
Byrne testified more than 19,000 federal staff from 80 agencies were on the ground at the height of the emergency effort. More than a billion dollars in commodities, such as food, water, tarps, and construction materials “were delivered by air, off-road vehicles and on foot, making it the largest and longest commodity delivery mission in FEMA’s history,” he said.
Maria destroyed thousands of buildings and knocked out power to virtually the entire U.S. territory of more than 3 million people. Researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health released a study this week based on a survey of more than 3,000 households on the battered island.
The researchers determined at least 4,645 “excess deaths” occurred during the storm and the weeks that followed as the island struggled to provide basic services such as food, water and medical care. The researchers also said the number was probably conservative, and that the total could have exceeded 5,000.
By comparison, more than 1,800 people died when Katrina roared across the U.S. Gulf Coast as a Category 5 hurricane in 2005.
Christy Delafield, a spokeswoman for the global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps, has spent time in Puerto Rico since Maria. She said her group always believed official numbers seemed low, but “Harvard’s numbers are worse than we feared.”
“The lack of electricity and basic services meant that people couldn’t get the help they needed for a long time after the storm,” she said. “The elderly, people with health problems and the very young were at particular risk.”
Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said the Puerto Rico government welcomed the study and would analyze it further. He said officials expected the number would be much higher than previous counts, and a team at George Washington University has been conducting a review of the death total that is due soon.
“As the world knows, the magnitude of this tragic disaster caused by Hurricane Maria resulted in many fatalities,” he said. “Both studies will help us better prepare for future natural disasters and prevent lives from being lost.”
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