Hurricane Sandy was the deadliest hurricane to hit the East Coast since the 70s. It had the most direct fatalities, with 49 drownings in homes and cars, and 20 deaths caused by falling trees out of the 72 direct deaths that occurred in the United States.
When it comes to direct deaths, Hurricane Sandy was far deadlier than Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico. But Sandy took place under Obama and Maria under Trump. Just as with Hurricane Katrina, under Bush, the media was motivated to make the disaster appear much worse than it really was. And it did that by running figures from studies calculating the possible indirect death toll from Maria.
That is why the media has been aggressively pushing a George Washington University study claiming a 2,975 death toll for Maria in Puerto Rico, after earlier pushing a Harvard study claiming that 4,645 Puerto Ricans had died due to the storm. That one had a margin of error of “plus or minus 3,852.”
When most of your death toll is a potential margin of error, there’s no reason to take your numbers seriously. The GWU study, the one that Trump questioned, groups in deaths in February 2018 and attributes it to a storm that struck Puerto Rico in September 2017. Skepticism is warranted.
The 2,975 number attributes 800 deaths between December and February to Hurricane Maria.
The studies are not facts. Treating them as facts shows a basic ignorance of science. Contending, as CNN, and the New York Times have, that Trump’s description of them as inflated is “false”, is itself false.
When your hurricane death toll includes people who died a third of a year later, it's inflated.
The studies of Puerto Rico create massively inflated death tolls by guesstimating the population, comparing the death rates during and long after the hurricane to average death rates, and attributing the excess to the storm. The process relies heavily on guesswork. Despite that the media has taken to treating those numbers as a fact, even “fact checking” President Trump for questioning them.
But if we are to treat such estimated death tolls as definitive, what of Hurricane Sandy?
The Federal response to Hurricane Sandy was badly mismanaged. I saw that up close at the time as a New Yorker. Nevertheless the media exploited the disaster to boost Obama’s election prospects. Obama toured the disaster zone, made promises to the survivors that were never kept, and moved on.
But what of the actual death toll?
A Rutgers study found a 31% increase in mortality from heart attacks in the Sandy impact zone in New Jersey. That study found 69 extra deaths caused by heart attacks due to Sandy in the first two weeks and that total deaths rose from 1069 in the high-impact areas in the two weeks before impact to 1287 in the two weeks afterward.
A difference of 218 deaths.
Since New Jersey only had 29.1% of the confirmed Sandy deaths, such a picture is very incomplete. But we can assume that the study would only account for less than a third of the Sandy death toll.
Another study did estimate a potentially larger Sandy death toll by looking at fluctuations in New Jersey deaths. Unlike the GWU and Harvard studies, and some of the earlier Katrina studies, it received little attention outside medical circles because its implications were politically unwelcome. The mainstream media appears to have never mentioned it, despite giving front page coverage to the Maria studies.
The Sandy study was confined to New Jersey, which had the second largest number of deaths. It’s not nearly as comprehensive as the Maria studies claim to be. But, like the Maria studies, it found a significantly elevated number of deaths among the elderly and ill populations in New Jersey.
The study found that in the month that Hurricane Sandy struck, from October 28, 2012 through November 27, 2012 and in the quarter, October 28, 2012 through January 27, 2013, deaths rose by 6% for the month and 7% for the quarter.
During the quarter, deaths due to infectious respiratory diseases went up 20% and from non-infectious respiratory diseases by 24%. Deaths due to unintentional injuries rose by 23% for the month and 10% for the quarter. Cardiovascular deaths went up 6% in the month and quarter.
Deaths for people over 76 years old rose 10% in the month and 13% for the quarter. Deaths among the elderly caused by unintentional injury went up 33% for the month and 26% for the quarter.
Back of the envelope calculation would suggest that this could add between 12,000 to 20,000 fatalities when you consider that New Jersey accounted for only a third of the deaths in Hurricane Sandy.
Does this mean that Hurricane Sandy killed 20,000 people? About as likely that Maria killed 3,000.
But if the media is going to use studies and estimates of possible indirect deaths that stretch out for many months after the hurricane, then it ought to apply the same rules to Sandy as it does to Maria.
If the media demands that Trump accept a 3,000 death toll in Puerto Rico, it better brace itself for a vastly expanded Sandy death toll. And to have that death toll blamed on the Obama administration.
Fair is fair. And unfair is unfair.
The Democrats and the media have decided to use flawed studies that assume higher death rates, especially among the elderly, based on population guesstimates, to vastly expand hurricane death tolls for political purposes. But they’ve forgotten that Sandy was far deadlier than Maria.
And they’ve also forgotten that the Obama administration badly mishandled its response.
I know, because I was there.
While Obama, Chris Christie and Michael Bloomberg badly mismanaged the hurricane response, Donald J. Trump, then still a private citizen, opened Trump Hotel & Tower to hurricane refugees.
Obama meanwhile flew in, got a photo op with a grieving woman that made all the papers, and then when she asked for the help that had been promised her, got a form letter from the White House.
Pete Souza, Obama’s court photog, recently reposted his version of Stalin’s Engelsina Markizova photo on social media to bash Trump. Like Engelsina, the fate of the real woman in the propaganda shot was forgotten.
Did Obama’s incompetence kill 20,000 people?
Local governments are responsible for responding to natural disasters. New York City, like Puerto Rico, had a deeply dysfunctional local government that could barely figure out how to boil water. Manhattan lost power because one of its major power plants was sitting right on the water. Puerto Rico’s setup was even more dysfunctional. Neither of those were the fault of the Federal government.
FEMA usually mishandles every natural disaster. Politicians usually fly in for the photo ops. The gargantuan aid bill inevitably dumps most of the money into assorted pork for the politically connected.
Statistical spikes are suggestive, but not certain. The elderly and people with serious medical problems are the most likely to be affected by power outages, hospital shutdowns and other problems caused by natural disasters. But they’re also the most at risk even without the occurrence of a natural disaster.
The media is selling a lie. And it knows that it’s selling a lie.
Its fake outrage over the inflated Puerto Rico death toll is the very definition of fake news.
When a Republican is in the White House, the media inflates the death toll and blasts the response. When a Democrat is in the White House, the media minimizes the death toll and praises the response.
The media’s attacks on President Trump over Puerto Rico aren’t journalism, they’re messaging.
But while the media is entitled to its own biases, it isn’t entitled to its own standards. If it wants to use the expanded numbers for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, it’s going to have to use them for Sandy too.
If it wants to blame Trump for 3,000 dead, Obama is going to be blamed for 20,000 dead.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons