The Hidden Hurricane Death Toll in Puerto Rico: Thousands Died as a Result of Conscious Racist and Colonialist U.S. Policy

June 7, 2018 | Revolution Newspaper |



“If it were 5,000 kittens, there would be outrage. If it was 5,000 dogs, there would be outrage. If it was 5,000 blonde-haired, blue-eyed women, there would be outrage.”

—Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of Uprose, a Latino organization in Brooklyn, on U.S. treatment of Puerto Rico1

A new study from Harvard University researchers estimates that roughly 5,000 Puerto Rican people died during and in the three months after Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck last September2, or over 70 times the official death toll of 64.

Many died in the initial storm—swept away by raging floods, crushed by their collapsing homes, hit by falling trees. But the great majority—mostly the elderly and sick—died in the weeks and months after the storm. They slowly suffocated in their homes as electric breathing machines clicked off; they were poisoned by their own bodies, unable to get to kidney dialysis centers because roads were blocked; they died in hospitals as vital surgeries were postponed; they died of diseases from untreated water. The rate of death from sepsis (infection) jumped by 50 percent after the storm.

These deadly conditions persisted, not for hours or days, but for months and months—in fact in large parts of Puerto Rico they still persist. As of March, almost six months after the storm, 46,000 people had tarps instead of roofs on their homes; only 40% of people who had applied to FEMA for home repair assistance had received any money; tens of thousands lacked any electricity and the whole national grid is still subject to frequent breakdown and vulnerable to complete collapse. And this is the situation as the 2018 hurricane season is beginning.

Indications are that the death rate in Puerto Rico remains markedly higher than before the storm. Conditions are so bad that hundreds of thousands have left the island permanently, a roughly five percent population drop.

These deaths were mainly unnecessary—the result of the complete refusal of the Trump/Pence regime to organize or fund a significant aid effort to Puerto Rico (as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands), coupled with the already impoverished and backward conditions imposed on Puerto Rico by 120 years of U.S. domination. Trump refused to mobilize government resources—there were not even any cabinet-level discussions of the disaster. He refused to provide significant debt relief to the near-bankrupt Puerto Rican government. He initially refused to suspend the Jones Act, which increases costs on relief shipments, then under pressure suspended it for 10 days. And crucially, normal procedures for mobilizing outside power utilities to help restore the shattered electrical grid were inexplicably rejected, and what little funds were allotted were often funneled into tiny, unqualified but politically connected companies like Whitefish Energy.

None of this was accident, incompetence or even corruption. No, this was both typical of U.S. oppression and neglect of Puerto Rico since it was colonized by the U.S. in 1898, and a reflection of the leap to fascism and open white supremacy of the Trump/Pence regime. 

From the time the storm hit Trump expressed open malevolence and contempt towards the Puerto Rican people. As their island lay in ruins Trump howled that “they want everything to be done for them,” complained they had thrown the U.S. budget “out of whack,” and tossed rolls of paper towels to desperate people. When Trump gave himself a “10 out of 10” for the recovery effort in October—which he has never backed away from—it was because from his imperialist, colonialist and white supremacist standpoint, the Puerto Rican people deserved no better than what they got.

These senseless deaths and the ongoing torment and destruction of Puerto Rico and its people are not a “natural disaster,” they are a towering crime of U.S. imperialism. This reality should provoke not only great outrage, but should drive oppressed people and all people of conscience to get with the preparations we are carrying out, and the movement we are building, for an actual revolution that could sweep this monstrosity away, and bring about a new society in which the blatant racism towards and callous abandonment of millions of people would be unimaginable.


1. Interviewed by the New York Times at a protest in New York City, June 2, 2018. [back]

2.  An exact death count has been difficult to establish, not just due to the massive chaos of the storm, but more importantly, the failure of the U.S. to reestablish power, communications and transportation infrastructure, the failure to even send relief workers to remote areas, and the politically-motivated efforts of the lackey regime of Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló to downplay the number.  Various studies have come to different estimates; almost all are over one thousand. [back]




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