by Terese Svoboda
Last month I saw the Whitney exhibit “no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria.” As you might remember, Maria was a Category 4 storm that hit Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. According to Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 4,645 Puerto Ricans died as a result of the storm, but according to the Puerto Rican government, only 64 died. The Whitney’s museum label stated that the smaller number “not only insulted the populace with its miscalculation but also undercounted at-risk sectors that experienced increased deaths from accidents, cardiac conditions, diabetes, suicide, and even leptospirosis—a usually rare, potentially deadly, yet preventable bacterial infection spread by rats that grew prevalent in the months following the storm due to contaminated water.” A year after the hurricane, an impromptu installation of over 3,000 pairs of shoes was placed in front of Puerto Rican government buildings to memorialize the actual number of dead..[i] Activist Puerto Ricans had the number 4,645 tattooed onto their bodies. During the 2019 summer, protests about the death toll discrepancy finally unseated governor Ricardo Rosselló.[ii]
Which of these numbers will be recorded in history, and why?
According to most historians, only eight people died during the the Great Fire in London in 1666. Bertrand Roehner, my friend and historiographer, brought up this fact when I visited him in Paris last week. He maintains that common sense is the key to recognizing history’s weaknesses, and science is the remedy. Despite having access to the tremendous advances in technology, statistics, and the tools of interpretation, he says the study of history has not progressed as a discipline. Why has archeology, anthropology and paleontology adopted scientific ways of ascertaining what happened in the past, but not history? He likes to point out how much the study of physics has moved forward in the three centuries since Newton’s theories in Principia. His choice of this 1687 publication as a milestone coincides with the nearly contemporaneous Great Fire of London.
The conflagration started in the middle of the night when most Londoners were asleep in their beds, the wind was strong, and the narrow streets created a vacuum that quickly spread the fire among structures mainly built of tar paper and wood. It burned for four days. The number eight in fatalities from such a huge fire is hard to believe. The London Gazette reported not a single death.[iii] However, no one actually counted the dead, making all numbers purely hearsay. The London office in charge of printing mortality data (begun the year before, when the plague was raging) was destroyed at the start of the fire. Because the smoldering buildings were visible for months, if not decades, historians do know with some degree of accuracy that well over 13,000 buildings were destroyed. “The third-largest city in the western world burns to the ground and, if contemporaries are to be believed, the death toll is in single figures. No doubt some deaths went unrecorded,” writes an historian in 2004.[iv]
If history deals with facts, why not support them? Roehner and his colleague Peter Richmond set out to provide a more believable estimate by comparing analogous historical events, and by using statistical analysis. First they calculated the number of natural deaths for the population during the period of the fire, using a crude annual death rate of 2% calculated in the 1950s for developing countries. They came up with at least 87 deaths out of the 400,000 Londoners in the city during the fire, ten times the reported number of those who died. Then they compared the number of dead in six other large city fires, and after determining the standard deviation between them, and a standard deviation for the average, came up with 208 fatalities for London, plus or minus another 78. The large deviation accounts for all but one of the six fires having occurred during the 19th century, two hundred years after London’s, discrepancies in building materials, the varying sizes of the cities, the time the fires started, and other parameters. But the 208 plus or minus 78 at least begins to correct the anomaly of the significantly tiny number, and if you add those plus the 87 natural deaths, you get a much more believable 395 corpses at minimum, 473 maximum.
In contrast, the Great Fire in Tokyo occurred just a few years earlier in 1657, lasted only three days, and began in the middle of the afternoon when the populace was about their business. Reported fatalities for this disaster was 100,000. Was aid from the government distributed according to mortality statistics? Who benefited from such a high and somewhat unrealistic number? Roehner and his partner are also investigating this number.
The dead don’t lie but the living do. In a war, high death counts applaud the victors, but are not so welcomed by losers. It’s hard to draft volunteers if newspapers report high fatalities, but it’s also hard to raise funds and support from civilians if the deaths are too low. Cédric Mas, a military historian and president of the Action Resilience Institute said that “if we rely on official accounts, all the great battles of Antiquity were won one against 10, with very few losses and a massacre.” [v]
In a great natural disaster, similar political factors come into play. Initially, Puerto Rican physicians were blamed for not understanding how to report deaths appropriately.[vi] Representatives Nydia Velázquez and Bennie Thompson complained that the death toll was underreported “to portray relief efforts as more successful than they are”[vii] Two weeks after the hurricane, Trump threw paper towels into a crowd in Puerto Rico, calling the relief efforts “an incredible, unsung success,” and claiming that the Democrats had concocted a conspiracy to embarrass him by suggesting a higher death toll – but he had not a shred of evidence to support his claim.
The mayor of London is supposed to have said on hearing of the city on fire: “A woman could piss it out,” and refused the offer of the King’s soldiers to create fire breaks by pulling down houses. Secondary sources said he went home to bed.[viii] The supposed instigator, Robert Hubert, reportedly rather simple-minded, was hanged six weeks after the fire, having been questioned under duress (once again according to secondary sources), and later proved to have arrived in London two days after the fire started.[ix] Someone needed a scapegoat. The ineptitude of the mayor, the tension between the Dutch and French whose immigrants were being lynched and beaten by those who blamed them for the disaster, the general let’s-get-on-with-it attitude of the soon-starving populace, and King Charles II who had enough on his hands without accounting for the dead may have caused the low estimate. After a year of the plague, perhaps no one wanted to know.
The point of Roehner’s investigation of London’s Great Fire after five hundred years, however, is not to show how these numbers can be manipulated by various interested parties but that the science of statistics and comparative analysis can be used to provide more logical estimates of fact. Let history catch up with physics.
[i] Zaitchik, Alexander. “Thousands of Shoes Honor Hurricane Maria’s Victims in San Juan.” https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-06-04/a-memorial-of-shoes-honors-hurricane-maria-s-victims. 4 June 2018.
[ii] no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria Nov 23, 2022 – Apr 23, 2023.Whitney Museum. https://whitney.org/exhibitions/no-existe n.d.
[iii] Field, Jacob. London, Londoners and the Great Fire of 1666: Disaster and Recovery. Routledge. 2017. 20.
[iv] Tinniswood, The story of the Great Fire of London. Pimlico, London.2004. 132.
[v] Dagorn, Gary. “War in Ukraine: why it is so hard to estimate the number of the dead.” Le Monde. https://www.lemonde.fr/en/les-Gary Dagorn decodeurs/article/2022/09/26/war-in-ukraine-why-it-is-so-hard-to-estimate-the-number-of-dead_5998268_8.html. 26 september 2022.
[vi] “Ascertainment of the Estimated Excess Mortality from Hurricane María in Puerto Rico” (PDF). Milken Institute of Public Health. August 27, 2018.
[vii] “Letter to US Dept of Homeland Security” (PDF). velazquez house gov. Lydia Velázquez.
[viii] Tinniswood. 44.