A new analysis conducted by researchers at George Washington University estimates that approximately 2,975 people died in Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Maria. Clearly, this number is much higher than the Puerto Rican government’s original estimate of 64 deaths. To arrive at their conclusion, researchers totaled the amount of deaths on the island from September 2017 and February 2018 and compared them to historical death patterns for the previous seven years. The difference between those deaths that occurred in 2010-2017 and actual deaths in the period immediately following Maria was used to determine what they called the “estimate of excess mortality due to the hurricane." Researchers also discovered that that the populations most at risk for death were those who lived in low-income areas and elderly men (age 65 and older).
Since Hurricane Maria hit nearly one year ago, it’s been difficult to get an accurate death toll. One study released in early spring estimated the number of deaths to be more than 4,600. That number came from a door-to-door survey conducted of randomly selected homes across the island. Then, in early August, in a report to Congress, the Puerto Rican government finally admitted that at least 1,427 people died as a result of the disaster. However, the findings in that report also noted that those deaths "may or may not be attributable to the hurricanes."
The reason why we can’t seem to get an accurate accounting of the deaths concerns disparities in how they were reported. This latest report by George Washington University notes that many physicians were unaware of how to certify deaths after a natural disaster, and that the island’s government did not effectively communicate how to do death certificate reporting prior to last year’s hurricane season. As a result, only deaths that were directly attributable to effects of the storm, such as flooding, flying debris, etc., were counted. This process failed to take into account how other deaths might have occurred—for example, a lack of electricity causing the failure of a ventilator in a hospital, fatal car accidents due to mudslides and road debris, and the like.
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló, who commissioned the study, claims that he remains committed to full transparency and accountability in finding out exactly how many people died as a result of Maria. Meanwhile, the White House says that Donald Trump is still very proud of all the work his government has done on the island.
Those may sound like lovely sentiments to some, but they are actually laughable. Puerto Rico’s corrupt and bankrupt government failed to adequately prepare for the storm, while the federal government botched the recovery every chance it got. As for Donald Trump, let’s not forget that his response was to throw paper towels at hurricane survivors and blame them for throwing his budget out of whack. He also told them they should be glad that fewer people died because of Hurricane Maria than did from Hurricane Katrina. That was a lie. Their lives were no less meaningful—but by comparison, it’s estimated that 1,833 people died as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
At the end of the day, the report sheds light on the major failure of the Puerto Rican government to educate medical practitioners on how to correctly document cases of death that occur in natural disasters. It should serve as a cautionary tale for public safety, emergency planning, and medical training. Unfortunately, it’s too late to do anything about the thousands of people who died during Hurricane Maria. But we can still make sure their deaths are counted in the official vital statistics registry, and plan for the future so that this kind of negligence never happens again.