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Americans viewed Hurricane Maria as if it was happening in another country

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Thousands have fled Puerto Rico in the three weeks since Hurricane Maria hit, but for the millions remaining the struggle for life's basic necessities seems to be never-ending.

Hurricane Maria may have killed more than 4,600 Americans in Puerto Rico, according to a recent academic report, but Americans paid a lot less attention to the storm compared to storms of similar or even lesser magnitude.

In the aftermath of Maria, a number of polls were taken to judge just how closely Americans were paying attention to the devastation and recovery efforts. After the storm hit in late September, a study by non-gold standard pollster YouGov found that only 27% were following news about the effects of Hurricane Maria very closely. To put that in some perspective, the same poll found that 43% and 39% of Americans respectively were very closely following news about the less deadly Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey respectively.

Both Harvey and Irma hit hardest in the continental US.

In November 2017, just 22% of Americans told gold-standard pollsters at the Kaiser Family Foundation that they were “following news about rebuilding and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria” very closely. That wasn’t much more than the 15% of Americans who said they weren’t following it “at all closely”.

The lack of attention paid to Maria is unusual for a major hurricane (category 3 or higher at its peak) that harmed Americans. Take a look at these polls or average of polls that were taken by the gold standard Kaiser Family Foundation or Pew Research Center in the aftermath of previous powerful hurricanes. In every instance, more Americans were paying very close attention than they were to news about Maria.

  • Hugo (1989): 60% were paying very close attention.
  • Andrew (1992): 66% were paying very close attention.
  • Georges (1998): 43% were paying very close attention.
  • Mitch (1998): 36% were paying very close attention.
  • Floyd (1999): 45% were paying very close attention.
  • Isabel (2003): 47% were paying very close attention.
  • Katrina (2005): 70% were paying very close attention.
  • Wilma (2005): 34% were paying very close attention.
  • Gustav (2008): 37% were paying very close attention.
  • Ike (2008): 46% were paying very close attention.
  • Irene (2011): 42% were paying very close attention.
  • Sandy (2012): 50% were paying very close attention.
  • Matthew (2016): 37% were paying very close attention.

Many of these storms were deserving of the attention they received. Sandy ravaged the New York City metropolitan area. Andrew is one of the few storms that was at category 5 status when it made landfall. Katrina altered the history of New Orleans.

Maria’s death toll, though, was higher than every hurricane but one in recorded history for causing most Americans fatalities in US history. It’s more than double the number killed in Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The lack of attention to Maria is no doubt because many Americans don’t see Puerto Ricans as citizens of their country.

Back in 1993, 46% of Americans said Puerto Ricans were either not citizens or weren’t sure, in a CNN poll. A non-gold standard Morning Consult poll taken in September 2017 still found a little less than half of Americans didn’t know Puerto Ricans were citizens.

The percentage of Americans who recognized the Puerto Ricans as US Citizens did rise after all the news about how Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Still, nearly a quarter of Americans either didn’t know or said Puerto Ricans were not citizens in an October 2017 Kaiser Family Foundation poll. And even with that increased knowledge base, just 22% of Americans said they were paying very close attention to what was occurring in Puerto Rico with regards to Maria.

That’s why it is perhaps not surprising that the amount of attention paid by Americans looks more like it would for a storm that didn’t hit the US than one that did. For example, 18% paid very close attention to Hurricane Dean, which impacted Mexico in 2007, and 28% paid very close attention to Hurricane Earl, which did not make landfall in the US but slightly-impacted the eastern seaboard in 2010.


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