The actual number of people who died in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria is closer to 4,700 than the official government count of 64, according to a new study.
A Harvard University research team surveyed 3,299 randomly chosen Puerto Rican households and extrapolated the findings to estimate that the island likely saw 4,645 “excess deaths” between the storm’s Sept. 20, 2017, landfall and Dec. 31, 2017.
“Our results indicate that the official death count of 64 is a substantial underestimate of the true burden of mortality after Hurricane Maria,” the researchers wrote.
Factoring in “excess deaths” — deaths that would not have occurred had the island not found itself in a prolonged disaster in the storm’s wake — there is a 95 percent likelihood that the actual death toll sits between 800 and 8,500, according to the study published Tuesday in The New England Journal of Medicine.
The 4,645 figure represents an estimate within that range.
The researchers attributed many of the deaths to the interruption of health care, electricity and utility services after the hurricane decimated the island.
Much of the US territory was left without electricity after the Category 4 storm lashed the island, downing power lines and crippling the power grid.
The death rate is a contentious subject, in part because the federal government didn’t respond as rapidly to the disaster as it has in other hurricane emergencies.
The study noted that 83 percent of the households in Puerto Rico were without electricity for the time period examined.
Maria caused $90 billion in damage, making it the third-costliest tropical cyclone in the United States since 1900, the researchers said.
“The timely estimation of the death toll after a natural disaster is critical to defining the scale and severity of the crisis and to targeting interventions for recovery,” the scientists wrote in the study.
“As the United States prepares for its next hurricane season, it will be critical to review how disaster-related deaths will be counted, in order to mobilize an appropriate response operation and account for the fate of those affected.”
The government of Puerto Rico commissioned its own researchers from George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health to estimate excess deaths.
Results of that study have been delayed and are due out this summer.
“We have always expected the number to be higher than what was previously reported,” said Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration.
Credit: NY Post