Golf and Hurricanes: a Story of Two Sets of Numbers

By Penny Smith

In an age of truthiness, even numbers lie. Well, one could argue they have always concealed facts (see Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”). Yet the skewed version of reality they sometimes convey says more about the cherry picking of the teller than the validity of the story itself.

Take Donald Trump’s pre-election obsession with Barack Obama’s golf game. These are selections from the nearly 30 times he tweeted about Obama golfing:

  • “President Obama should have gone to Louisiana days ago, instead of golfing. Too little, too late!”
  • “Only way to get Obama to do right for our Marine[s] would be for every country club across USA to deny him golf access.”
  • “Obama has admitted that he spends his mornings watching @ESPN. Then he plays golf, fundraises & grants amnesty to illegals.”
  • “Can you believe that, with all of the problems and difficulties facing the U.S., President Obama spent the day playing golf.”
  • “While Obama vacations, golfs, attends parties & jazz concerts, ISIS is chopping heads off journalists.”
  • PresObama [sic] is not busy talking to Congress about Syria … he is playing golf … go figure.”

Then Trump was elected. To keep track of the new golfing President, there is, of course, a web site: As hard as it may be to believe, Trump appears to have forgotten his criticism of his predecessor, since he spends about twice as much time on golf courses. However, he has not been so preoccupied with drivers and putters that he cannot tweet about another set of numbers: the ones noting the cost of the Mueller Investigation or, in his words, the Democratically controlled, money wasting WITCH HUNT. Trump pegs the cost through May, 2018, at $20 million of wasted tax-payer money.

How does that compare to Trump penchant for visiting his private properties? He has spent 110 days at various golf courses, most of them at two private clubs he owns: Mar-a-Lago and Bedminster. That means that he is at one of his properties, conveniently possessing a golf course, on average every 4.6 days. And what does that cost you and me, the taxpayers who fund rooms for support staff, golf carts for secret service employees, and dinners with “great” chocolate cakes? So far the total is $67,664,596, which, the last time I checked, was significantly more than $20 million.

Now the $16.7 million that Mueller has really spent (I guess over $3 million is a Trump rounding error) goes to an investigation of foreign meddling in our elections. That seems like a worthy cause; we don’t want people from “away” interfering in our private, democratic business, do we? And what is close to $68 million getting us? A relaxed, well-rested Donald, perhaps, who is on track to more than double the playing time of President Obama. And Obama had the good sense to play on courses that cost tax-payers a whole lot less money.

Does the number $1,560 mean anything to you? It’s what the EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, spent to purchase a dozen fountain pens from a local jewelry store. He also bought some personalized leather journals at the same shop. That $130 a pen. I guess these guys have never heard of Staples or Office Depot. Something that frivolous would have been a major PR bump for most Presidents, but not The Donald. It pales in comparison to his greens fees.

But the numbers I really want to highlight here are 2,996, 1,833, 106, 88 and 4,645. In September, 2001, two planes precipitated the World Trade Towers collapse, a third plane crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth plane crashed into a Pennsylvania field. When the counting ended at least 2,996 American residents, most of whom were citizens going about their daily business, were dead. Our national response was to wrap everything in American flags, condemn “the evil doers,” and set about rebuilding.

Almost all Americans denounced the obvious act of international terror. Many hundreds of them ran toward danger in an effort to save others. Many thousands volunteered money, time or goods to help clean up the crash sites in New York City, Pennsylvania and Washington DC. George Bush acted the part of President well. Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of NYC, distinguished himself, too.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina came roaring through the Gulf of Mexico and devastated the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, leaving much of The Big Easy under water. Once the counting was over 1,833 people were dead, with the largest concentration of deaths in and around New Orleans. Like the events of September 11, we were able to watch the tragedy unfold in real time on television.

Unfortunately, this tragedy failed to yield the solidarity and immediate response of 2001. President Bush “flew over” initially, then told us what a “heck of a job” his FEMA Director, Michael Brown, was doing. On-going videotapes from the ground belied that pronouncement. Hardly anyone was doing a “heck of a job” for several weeks. The chaos of the Convention Center and the Superdome told a story, in numbers, of a lack of preparedness and a subsequent, inefficient scramble to compensate. Let’s hear it for all those late in arriving, toxic Katrina trailers. But this wasn’t an attack on our nation; it was the unfortunate fate of racial and economic minorities who lacked the resources to get out of town.

In 2012 we had another President and a revitalized FEMA; Hurricane Sandy was able to kill only 106 people when it smashed into the northeast coast. It managed to generate over $70 billion worth of property damage, some of it exacerbated by climate change contributing to the greater severity of recent storms. However, Obama was there early and with empathy, praised even by a man who more often than not reviled him and who would later be a major Trump supporter, Chris Christie. The contrast between the hurricane responses of Obama and those of Bush was one reason the former won re-election that year.

Fast forward to 2017 and a price tag of $125 billion. Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast and within a four-day period over 40 inches of rain fell on Houston. I’ve lived in Houston and can testify that a normal rain will leave some streets flooded. A downpour is likely to send a few of the bayous over their banks. Like previous natural disasters, there was a sympathetic and somewhat immediate response, more in keeping with Sandy than Katrina – it was, after all, a more Republican city than New Orleans. Trump showed up, a tad late and less authentically sympathetic than Obama. For example, he told survivors to “have a wonderful time” as he was leaving. But the good news was that only 106 people (82 in Texas) lost their lives, the same number in Hurricane Sandy.

Later last year, however, Hurricane Maria caused chaos of a dimension not seen in the United States since the Galveston floods of 1900, when between 6,000 and 12,000 people lost their lives.1 I say “United States” purposefully, even though a significant number of Americans are unaware that Puerto Rico and the American Virgin Islands are part of this nation. (Officially, they’re “unincorporated territories,” the same designation that Alaska and Hawai’i once were.)

Hurricane Maria resulted in over $100 billion in property damages, but supposedly in fewer than 100 deaths, until a team of medical statisticians got hold of some data. In a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine (special article, May 29, 2018, pp. 1-9) the authors of  “Mortality in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria” contradicted the official death count. They claim there were 4,645 “excess deaths” after the hurricane, one-third of which could be attributed to delayed or interrupted health care. The authors even speculated that their count might be an under-estimate. If remotely correct, in terms of lives lost it’s far worse than Katrina. That’s a bunch more dead people than the currently official of 64.

When President Trump visited the island after the disaster, he took credit for what he believed was a minor calamity, at least in human terms. “We’ve saved a lot of lives … Nobody’s ever seen anything like it.” Nine days after the storms, the victims of Hurricane Maria had received 1.6 million meals, 2.8 million liters of water and 5,000 tarps; victims of Hurricane Harvey were dining on 5.1 million meals and 4.5 million liters of water and sheltering under 20,000 tarps. FEMA had approved $142 million in assistance for Harvey by that point, but only $6.2 million for Maria even though by then it was obvious that there was something really, really, really wrong with the power grid in Puerto Rico. Within 9 days there were 30,000 federal personnel working the storm in Texas; in that same time period there were only 10,000 responders in the Caribbean.

Trump’s response to the on-going crisis in Puerto Rico was to condemn the mayor of San Juan, who kept saying how bad things were, and to applaud the territorial Governor, whose disaster figures were more in keeping with what the administration wanted to believe. When the President did the obligatory on-site survey of the event, one of the most telling photo ops was at a relief center in which Trump tossed paper towels to the crowd. “We got really high marks on Florida, Louisiana and Texas and I think did at least as well in Puerto Rico.” Except, of course, when the numbers were finally examined and he didn’t.

Eighty-eight people dead in Houston, 1,833 in Louisiana, and 4,645 in Puerto Rico – many of whom would not have died if electricity had kept their oxygen machines humming along or their insulin cold.

What’s the difference here? Well, the World Trade Towers seemed like an unnatural act of war and in spite of the diversity New York City represents, it was an attack on the nation, on all of us. Katrina exposed some flaws in our response system, flaws we created from neglect and an unwillingness to spend the money necessary to ensure levees are safe and responses immediate. Sandy and Harvey showed we could minimize the human toll of storms through a combination of local volunteers, government action, and response speed. Trump benefitted from a system lingering in place from the Obama years.

And Hurricane Maria told us that there are some places and people about which we care not much. We always had the option of extraordinary effort in Puerto Rico. Yes, it’s “away,” but I suspect a similar disaster in Hawai’i would have seen a major air lift response and it’s a lot further off our coastline.

Texas had a major player in Congress to ensure a “medal to the pedal” reaction to Harvey. John Cornyn kept pushing responsiveness by threatening to hold up other work in the Senate. American citizens who have no voting representation in Congress populate Puerto Rico. Moreover, these are American citizens whose primary language is Spanish and whose majority are “people of color.” There is a 41% poverty rate on the island; over 200,000 out of a population of slightly over 3 million have already left in search of jobs after the hurricane. And the press, the mainstream media, which kept Katrina in the headlines and sent newscasters to Houston, moved on quickly to other stories – after all, there was Stormy Daniels, morning tweets, and witch hunts to worry about.

Puerto Rico is a colony, although we don’t call her that very often. It is a colony in the same sense of Europe’s African colonies. For nearly a century we exploited its people and their natural resources. We have never treated it fairly, never accorded it the same attention as the mainland, never truly considered its people our equals. And woe to colonies in an era of greed and truthiness.

The Governor of the island and purveyor of the undercount, Ricardo Rosselló, has recently said there “will be hell to pay” if the statistics he was given (64 dead) are wrong. He is “shocked” to hear officials withheld statistics. (Given the Vast difference in the number dead and the relatively small size of Puerto Rico, you’d think he would have seen something amiss, if he’d just looked around.) Conversely, the San Juan mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, is taking the governor and Trump Administration to task: “The government of Puerto Rico remains silent and idle while the government under the Trump Administration was looking and continues to look the other way and make things very difficult for the Puerto Rican people.”

Trump continues to heat up his twitter account with anti-Mueller propaganda and conspiracy theories. The Governor is awaiting another study that he hopes will reconcile the numbers 64 and 4, 645. Yet some Puerto Ricans, even today, lack electricity on the island. Before the hurricane, Puerto Rico was suffering from a debt crisis, enforced austerity and the aftermath of a century of often inept and sometimes corrupt colonial rule. Weather problems didn’t make that situation any better.

It would be easy to undertake a Marshall Plan for American colonies – it takes only a commitment of public money and will. It would also be easy to come to terms with their 21st-century status – statehood or independence. But these are brown, Spanish-speaking people, often mixed race Indians and Africans, who lack the economic and political power to grab and keep our attention. They may be citizens, but they don’t have elected representatives in our Congress.

Numerous faith traditions challenge us to help the poor, the hungry and the stranger. History will judge our performance as the ostensible beacon of democracy we purport to be by, among other things, how we treat those citizens with the least power. Surely, inhabitants of our colonies qualify as counting among “the least.”  So far we’re not getting a passing grade; Hurricane Maria simply made what was already there momentarily obvious. Then, attention on the mainland went chasing other things.

1The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 remains the nation’s deadliest storm. As someone who spent considerable Graduate School time looking at the ocean in that town, always rationalizing that beach time made me a better student, I marvel at what happened at the beginning of the last century. Literally the entire island was under water. Before the flood the town proper was prosperous, large, diverse, business and pleasure-oriented, and acutely unaware of what was about to happen to it. Check out Erik Lawson’s Isaac’s Storm, if you’re a disaster reader.

An Aside: I wrote a draft of this essay on Sunday, June 3. Since then (today is Wednesday night), there has been a steady stream of punditry about Puerto Rico following the publication of the recent New England Journal of Medicine.  So, maybe this has some legs as a policy issue. At least Rosanne has faded from the spotlight as we enter another news cycle.