Uncertain Numbers for Puerto Rico

The death toll for Hurricane Maria is 64… or over 1,000. The number of people moving from Puerto Rico to Florida since the hurricanes is 300,000… or 35,000. Nearly everyone has potable water… or nobody does.

As Nancy Quinones, president of the Puerto Rican Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Jacksonville, was quoted as saying in the Orlando Sentinel, “It’s very hard to get statistics about this. Important to be accurate, but it is hard to know.”

Why is the data so uncertain?

Information is fluid after a disaster. It’s hard to know how many people have stable electricity if some people are still staying in shelters. It’s hard to say for certain that a dialysis patient would have lived if electricity had been available.

Often, because the need for information is so great, people turn to sources that might not be completely relevant. For example, the widely-quoted estimate of 300,000 new Floridians from Puerto Rico is based on arrivals in major Florida cities by airplane. This number may include reporters or rescue workers returning to their homes in the States. It may include people arriving in Tampa on their way to North Dakota. Or it may not include people flying into smaller airports. It’s the best source of information right now, but it probably isn’t exactly correct.

It’s more accurate to wait for, say, U.S. Census data, which is highly reliable but can take years to be compiled, checked, and released. People need the data faster, though. Not only because we all want to know, but also in order to make plans for schools, housing (currently becoming a big issue in Florida), and funding requests.

There have also been unreasonably optimistic evaluations of the situation in Puerto Rico that make leaders there worry that Congress will think everything is fine and Puerto Rico doesn’t need federal help. With the most recent federal disaster relief bill stuck in Congress, this is a real problem.

What can be done?

At the same time, Puerto Rico must work to encourage tourism and business investment. Making it clear that Puerto Rico still needs a lot of help with disaster recovery, but at the same time encouraging the travel and business that can stimulate the economy… that’s also hard.

Even before the hurricane season, economists were saying that it was hard to evaluate the situation in Puerto Rico because of a lack of hard numbers. The large numbers of people leaving the Island before and after the hurricanes make much of the data a moving target. The destruction caused by the hurricanes added to the uncertainty.

Researchers must work to get accurate numbers. We all must share accurate information and refuse to retweet false numbers. Right now, uncertainty about the numbers is the truth. As more information emerges, we’ll have greater certainty. Until then, we have to accept the uncertainty.

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