On the eve of the 2018 hurricane season, we learn that the death toll in Puerto Rico from last year's Hurricane Maria wasn't 64 as the official record shows, but rather an astounding "at least 4,645" and perhaps as many as 5,740, according to to a new Harvard study released Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
That figure is three times higher than the death toll after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"The study found that health-care disruption for the elderly and the loss of basic utility services for the chronically ill had significant impacts across the U.S. territory, which was thrown into chaos after [Puerto Rico's] September hurricane wiped out the electrical grid and had widespread impacts on infrastructure," wrote The Washington Post.
Isn't this the 21st century? How can a U.S. territory be so destroyed and then be left so destroyed for months at a time that we can be here nearly a year later with such disconnect about life and death? How could some communities be entirely cut off for weeks amid road closures and communications failures? How can we know Maria caused $90 billion in damage and was the third-costliest tropical cyclone in the United States since 1900, yet the island still has a persistent lack of water, a faltering power grid (14,000 have yet to regain electric power) and a lack of essential services?
Specifically the Harvard report criticized Puerto Rico's methods for counting the dead — and its lack of transparency in sharing information — as detrimental to planning for future natural disasters.
Carlos R. Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said in a statement Tuesday that the territorial government welcomes the Harvard survey and looks forward to analyzing it.
"As the world knows, the magnitude of this tragic disaster caused by Hurricane Maria resulted in many fatalities," Mercader said. "We have always expected the number to be higher than what was previously reported."
He said the study, and another expected soon from George Washington University, will help Puerto Rico better prepare for disasters and prevent the loss of life.
Don't you love politician-speak?
Meanwhile, the first tropical storm of the season — Alberto — is dumping rain by the buckets on the eastern half of the United States, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center is forecasting a 75 percent chance that the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season will be near- or above-normal.
That means 10 to 16 storms large enough to merit their own names, with five to nine growing in strength to hurricanes. The year of Maria, 2017, saw 17 storms large enough to merit their own names, including 10 hurricanes. NOAA says an average season produces a dozen named storms, of which half become hurricanes, including 3 major ones.
What NOAA makes no mention of is climate change as a driver for at least some of this extreme weather— never mind that independent researchers say they've linked warming patterns to the drenching of Texas during Hurricane Harvey, which at a recovery cost of $125 billion made it the second most expensive hurricane in U.S. history. NOAA made no mention of climate change because in Washington, D.C., the Pentagon earlier this year removed numerous climate change references from an Obama-era report about preparing U.S. military installations — among other things — for the effects of rising temperatures and sea levels.
And, as you know, in June last year President Donald Trump announced his intention to pull the U.S. out of the historic Paris climate agreement — a deal he considers bad for the American economy. On a national and global scale, we could view it as the prequel to his tossing of paper towel rolls to a crowd looking for aid in Puerto Rico.
But new research published last week in the journal Nature suggests that it will cost much more in the long run to pull out of the climate accord than to stay in it. Not hitting the Paris goals will cost us and all nations in the place most of us care about most — the wallet.
Not being smart with our assets and our planet will be costly — both in dollars and lives. Puerto Rico is a perfect case in point.