New Report Estimates 2,975 People Died In Puerto Rico Due To Hurricane Maria
A new study concludes that the total death toll from Hurricane Maria was vastly higher than previously reported.
Nearly a year later, a new report indicates that the death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was far higher than previously estimated, and raises serious questions about the adequateness of the Federal and local response to the disaster:
A long-awaited report on the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico has found that nearly 3,000 more deaths than expected occurred in the months after the storm, the first official outside evaluation of the toll in a disaster whose damage in some cases took months to unfold.
The report, made public on Tuesday by researchers at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, was commissioned by the governor of Puerto Rico after The New York Times and other media outlets and researchers last year estimated that the death count far exceeded the government’s official toll of 64.
The new research, which was performed independently of the government, compared the actual death rate with what would have been expected had the storm not occurred — a method used in several earlier analyses. In December, The Times found that 1,052 more people than usual died in the 42 days after Hurricane Maria made landfall.
By the new tally, 22 percent more people died during the roughly six months after the storm than would normally be expected in that period.
“Hurricane Maria was a catastrophe of historic proportions, as never seen or lived before in the United States,” Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said in an emailed statement. He said the new analysis “is sobering, and its insights make clear that Congress and FEMA must work with us to establish a better system for the preparation and distribution of supplies ahead of future disasters.”
The researchers released very few details of their methodology or analysis, making it difficult to assess the quality of their work, which was carried out at a cost of $305,000 and also included an analysis of how the government certified deaths and communicated about them. They wrote that “national and international experts in different fields” had reviewed their methods. The report has not yet been subjected to the more rigorous process of being published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, though it has been submitted for publication.
A study by Harvard researchers published in The New England Journal of Medicine earlier this year estimated the death toll could range from 800 to more than 8,000 people, and was based on a household survey.
The new study has two main differences from most previous analyses. Researchers looked at deaths for a longer time period, from September 2017 — when two hurricanes, Irma and Maria, hit the island in close succession — until February 2018. Deaths continued to be elevated throughout this period.
The researchers also adjusted their calculations for what they estimated to be an 8 percent drop in the population after the storm and prolonged power failures, when thousands of people fled for the mainland. Using data from the territory’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics as well as from a government survey of airline travelers, the researchers estimated that nearly 280,000 fewer people were living on the island in February 2018 as in September 2017. That out-migration made it even more significant that deaths had increased compared with previous years.
People in poorer municipalities and older men had a higher risk of death throughout the study period, the researchers found.
“The lesson from this is that efforts for assistance and recovery need to focus as much as possible on lower-income areas, on people who are older, on people who are more vulnerable, because of having fewer of their own resources,” Dr. Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute, said at a news conference on Tuesday. She said a similar analysis has not been carried out in previous disasters. “I think we fail to appreciate the multitude of ways these major disasters impact people’s health and lives.”
Prior to this study, the official death toll for Maria in Puerto Rico was just 64 people, a number that even reporters on the ground in the weeks after the storm hit were openly questioning given the reports that were coming in from the rural parts of the Commonwealth and the fact that so much of the island was without period for extended periods of time. To a large degree, though, those reports seem to have been ignored and FEMA and other agencies did not seem willing to venture into those areas when help was actually needed the most. Additionally, it was apparent in the immediate aftermath of the storm that there was significant damage to the road infrastructure in those rural areas, making it hard even for those who wanted to help to get to problem areas in time to do any good. As a result, it has always been assumed that the death toll was higher than the official report. I don’t think anyone imagined, though, that the actual total would be more than 4,500% higher than those official reports.
As noted, this is actually the second study to be performed in the wake of last year’s hurricane to find that the probable death toll from Maria was far higher than the officially reported numbers. A study by Harvard University released in May placed the number of deaths at 4,645, although the study concluded that the actual death toll from the storm and its aftermath could end up being as high as 8,000 people, which would make Maria one of the deadliest natural disasters to hit any part of the United States in history. By way of reference, Hurricane Katrina is officially designated as having resulted in the deaths of 1,833 people based on reports from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other official authorities. If this estimate for the impact of Maria on Puerto Rico is even close to accurate, it would mean that the death toll from Maria in Puerto Rico alone would surpass Katrina and make Maria one of the worst natural disasters in American history, perhaps even putting it on a par with the infamous 1900 Galveston Hurricane that is estimated to have killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people. As with the Harvard study, this estimate is based on both official records and on an island-wide survey that was intended to uncover deaths that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the storm that could fairly be said to have been related to the storm even if initially attributed to other causes This includes deaths in hospitals resulting from the fact that the facilities lacked power for an extended period of time, as well as other deaths that may have been attributed to the things such as heat or other causes. Clearly, though, if these are deaths that could have been prevented if the storm had not hit the island, there’s no reason why they should not be included in the final total.
The report also comes at a time when we are marking the one year anniversary of the triple impact that the United States felt from Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria. Irma, of course, impacted Florida and mostly resulted in flooding in some areas but did not have the major impact that was feared at the time due to the manner in which it hit the mainland United States. Harvey, on the other hand, had a major impact on the Houston, Texas area thanks to record-breaking levels of rain that were dropped on the area in a short period of time as well as the storm surge that accompanied the storm. In terms of human life, though, neither one of these storms had the impact that Maria did not just in Puerto Rico but also in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were largely ignored in the immediate aftermath of the storm, and in other parts of the Caribbean such as the tiny island nation of Barbuda, which was effectively wiped out by the storm and which, like Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, is still struggling to bounce back from one of the most devastating storms in history.
So far, we’ve had a relatively mild hurricane season in the Atlantic and hopefully that will continue for the rest of the season. As last year reminded us, though, a major storm can pop up in a matter of days and have an impact for years to come. One would have thought we would have learned that lesson from storms like Andrew, Katrina, and Sandy, but it seems like nature feels it necessary to send a message every few years and we keep forgetting.
Update: Here’s the report: