In July, the Puerto Rican government released a draft report that acknowledged what local organizations, independent studies and common sense have been telling us for months: The toll from Hurricane Maria was significantly higher than the official count of 64. The preliminary draft estimates that 1,427 lives were lost as a result of the storm. This figure, which is in line with public health research, highlights just how catastrophic Maria was.

Even worse is the fact that many of these deaths could have been avoided. Last month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency released a report evaluating its response to the 2017 storm season. The report outlined numerous areas in which the federal response fell short. The agency underestimated the amount of food and fresh water required and how hard it would be to transport supplies to Puerto Rico. Its already-understocked warehouse in Puerto Rico was largely emptied after Hurricane Irma hit the U.S. Virgin Islands two weeks before Maria landed, leaving Puerto Ricans without basic disaster-relief supplies such as cots and tarps.

These shortages were exacerbated by other lapses. According to the report, FEMA had thousands fewer workers than needed and had to rely on staff from other agencies who were often untrained in disaster relief. An initial draft of the report, obtained by The New York Times, noted that the agency relied on a 5-year-old earthquake and tsunami plan. Overall, the report paints a picture of an agency entirely unprepared for such a large-scale disaster.

This assessment is a far cry from President Trump’s statement that his administration had “done a great job with an impossible situation.” FEMA’s own evaluation shows that the federal response was far from enough. Given that most of the deaths from the hurricane took place during the recovery, who knows how many lives could have been saved if the administration had responded with the urgency required?


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