At least 4,600 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria, a study shows. The government’s official death toll is still 64.
More than 4,600 Puerto Ricans may have died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in large part due to delayed medical care, according to a new survey of people on the island collected and analyzed by researchers at Harvard and other institutions.
The study, published Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that Hurricane Maria may be the deadliest natural disaster to hit US soil in 100 years, with a mortality rate twice as high as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. The only other US disaster on record with a higher death toll is the Galveston, Texas, hurricane of 1900, when somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 people died.
The new estimate of 4,600 “excess deaths” occurring between September 20, the day Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, and December 31 stands in stark contrast to the government’s official count of 64, a gross underestimate that has remained unchanged for months. The new research also validates previous analyses of mortality data and reports from the ground by journalists and other researchers that found that the death toll was well over 1,000.
To come up with the new estimate, researchers surveyed some 3,300 randomly chosen households across Puerto Rico in January and February, asking them about deaths in the family between September 20 and December 31 and factors that may have contributed to each death. They also asked about damage to their homes, and whether they were displaced and had access to food, water, health care, electricity, and cellphones. (On average, households went 84 days without electricity, 68 days without water, and 41 days without cellphone coverage after the Category 4 storm hit.)
The researchers then compared the results with Puerto Rico’s official death statistics from the same time period in 2016. They found a 62 percent increase in the mortality rate in 2017, which added up to an estimated 4,645 deaths linked to the storm (with a range of 793 and 8,498 deaths). About one-third of the deaths were attributed to delays or interruptions in health care, which in many cases was a result of widespread power outages across the island for weeks and months after the storm knocked out 80 percent of the island’s grid.
And, they wrote, the estimate of total deaths “is likely to be conservative since subsequent adjustments for survivor bias and household-size distributions increase this estimate to more than 5,000.”
Alexis Santos, a Puerto Rican demographer at Penn State who conducted his own analysis of mortality following the hurricane, told Vox the study’s methodology was consistent with how other scholars have tried to measure the death toll.