Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria, the Power of Photography

Published on 26 May 2024 at 18:31

About 3,000 people died during Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico —the most lethal U.S. natural disaster in at least a century. As with Florence, which swamped the Carolinas for days, and Typhoon Mangkhut, which scoured the Philippines and Hong Kong, the physical devastation of Puerto Rico was obvious right away. But it would be 11 months before its government produced a credible count of the dead. And when it did, a new storm came with it.

The final number, calculated by experts at George Washington University, was 1,000 beyond the upper estimates for Hurricane Katrina and almost exactly the toll from the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. It was also 47 times higher than the death count that island officials had offered in the first chaotic weeks after the storm, and haplessly stood by for months. That unlikely tally, just 64, was the number preferred by President Donald Trump, who seemed to regard a low body count as evidence of competence. “3000 people did not die,” the President tweeted on Sept. 13. As airily as he dismissed the global climate change that is making superstorms more frequent and intense, the President dismissed the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for tallying the deaths the storms leave in their wake.

This is the power of photography to capture tragedies and make sure people notice.

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