We’ll never forget the pigs on roofs struggling to survive rising floodwaters that in some cases didn’t stop rising until the water was more than 18 feet above flood level. Then there were the people standing on chimneys, and the hundreds rescued from trees, cars and homes. The destruction was widespread, affecting thousands of homes and other buildings throughout the Carolinas. In all, Hurricane Floyd caused $6.5 billion in damage and killed 74 people.
It has been nearly two decades since Floyd made landfall on the East Coast in 1999, and Carolinians still have vivid memories about where they were when it hit and how helpless they felt in the wake of nature’s wrath. But Floyd was “only” a Category 2 hurricane.
Now imagine if it were a Category 5 when it hit and was followed by a Category 4 storm that was measured as the fifth-most powerful system on record to make a direct hit on the U.S. That’s what Puerto Rico faced just last year. First, Hurricane Irma clipped the island, leaving one million people without electricity. A couple of weeks later, Hurricane Maria made its way across heavily populated areas of the island, leaving an unmatched path of destruction, given the circumstances.
That’s why it’s hard to fully comprehend the upheaval still being experienced by fellow American citizens in Puerto Rico. The scale of the damage is enormous. We mourned the 52 people killed in North Carolina by Floyd, but a recent Harvard study said there were likely thousands of hurricane-related deaths in Puerto Rico. There has been some controversy over the exact figure. Should it be near the low end of the Harvard estimate, which would put the death toll at about 900? Should it be at the upper end of the estimate, some 8,000? What about the median estimate, nearly 4,600 deaths, which generated so many headlines recently — or the other estimates that put the number somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000?
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No matter which number you choose, it’s clear the death toll is exponentially higher than initial estimates and is on par with what we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, which remains one of the country’s worst responses to a natural disaster in modern American history. That should disturb all Americans. But those of us who live on the coast and keep a watchful eye on the Atlantic hurricane season, which began this month, should be particularly concerned.
For as much damage as Hurricane Floyd caused in 1999, it had weakened considerably before it made landfall, and it was not the kind of direct, sustained hit Puerto Rico endured. We should not forget about the fate of those in Puerto Rico, if for no other reason than they are fellow human beings. But we should also be troubled that as Americans, they have been forgotten as we never would be if a similar storm were to arrive on our shores.