The Implications of Post-Disaster Deaths and Misinformation

FEMA Administrator defends President Trump’s Puerto Rico death toll conspiracy theory and his misinformed take on indirect, post-disaster deaths.

In advance of Hurricane Florence––a storm that has led to the deaths of 37 people as of September 20––President Donald Trump fired out a barrage of tweets addressing hurricane deaths. However, the tweets didn’t pertain to impending risk from Hurricane Florence nor did they provide guidance to the millions preparing to face the massive storm. Instead, they were about the death toll in Puerto Rico resulting from last year’s Hurricane Maria and the doubt that the toll has cast on his responsibility as president. In the tweets, Trump falsely accused Democrats of inflating the Puerto Rican government’s official death toll of 2,975 in order to undermine his credibility.

“3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico… This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico.” -- Donald J. Trump, President of the United States of America.

This Sunday, FEMA Administrator Brock Long spoke to “Face the Nation” host John Dickerson and “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd about Trump’s recent tweets. When asked, Administrator Long refused to acknowledge the death toll released by the Puerto Rican government as legitimate. He suggested that the studies that’d been conducted were “all over the place” and pointed to things like ‘increased levels of spousal abuse after natural disasters’ as a main contributor to high death tolls. He said, “You can't blame spousal abuse, you know, after a disaster on anybody.” This appalling response ignores the fact that the abuser is the responsible party, plain and simple. Abuse is never blameless, and to suggest so minimizes and further disempowers the victims. In addition to stress and displacement increasing the incidence of abuse, researchers have found that the organizations that support, shelter, and provide services to abuse victims and survivors don’t have the resources and plans in place to maintain their operations in disasters, exposing highly vulnerable people to their abusers. In my more than a decade of planning experience, I’ve never seen domestic violence service providers or safe houses engaged in disaster preparedness. This is a gap we must close immediately.

Furthermore, Administrator Long insisted that President Trump and FEMA had done everything in their power regarding Hurricane Maria and that any indirect, post-disaster deaths were completely and utterly unavoidable. To suggest that indirect deaths from natural disasters are inevitable is a dangerous fallacy. I would argue that the immediate, response phase-related deaths are the ones less likely to be avoided. A storm-weakened tree falling on a passing vehicle or a tornado upending homes are in the “acts of God” category. However, the prolonged lack of power and water that lead to hypothermia and gastrointestinal infection, a lack of dialysis services, or the increased rate of suicide that followed Hurricane Maria are of a different class. These are all results of insufficient resources, planning, coordination, and, ultimately, a failure of our humanity. I respect Administrator Long immensely, so I was shocked and disturbed by his response.

All disaster-related deaths are tragedies for families and communities. While some may feel that assistance in the immediate aftermath is the best way to prevent disaster-related deaths, others (including myself) see an opportunity to do more. It’s the very fact that these deaths are actually quite avoidable that makes them so insidious––arguably, more insidious than direct deaths. Research teams from “two of the most respected universities in the United States went to Puerto Rico” to look into what the government could have done better. Through their research, they identified previously known but rarely discussed challenges facing the island, some specific to disaster and others far more entrenched and long-term. The researchers found that the government authorities didn’t ensure the people of Puerto Rico had “a robust, resilient power grid and disaster preparedness infrastructure. It didn’t help people evacuate. It didn’t provide shelter and care after the hurricane. And it couldn’t even count the dead.” The takeaway from this research is that there are clear actions we could take to better prevent indirect, post-disaster deaths. Simply giving Puerto Rico access to a better power grid may have been enough to save many lives.

By insisting that we’ve ‘done all we can’ to save lives during and after Hurricane Maria, our government is denying learning from their mistakes and, thereby, risking future lives as well as our reputations as emergency managers and disaster relief providers. This will impair our ability to engage communities as they lose faith in federal disaster relief as a whole. Emergency management is much more than helping people who are in immediate danger. It’s equally about properly preparing people for disasters before they strike. It’s imperative that our current administration recognize this and act before another ill-prepared-for natural disaster leads to more “unavoidable” indirect, post-disaster deaths.

Oliver SperansComment