Puerto Rico Death Toll From Hurricane Maria Much Higher Than Officially Reported

A new study suggests that the death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria was much higher than previously reported.

A new study indicates that more than 4,600 people died when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico last September, far more than official death toll projections have indicated:

At least 4,645 people died amid the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico — more than 70 times the official government death toll of 64, according to a new study from Harvard University.

Locals, journalists and public health experts have for months questioned the government estimate of deaths from the storm, which caused more than $90 billion in damage.

President Donald Trump, however, said in October that Puerto Rico officials should be “very proud” of the low death toll.

The study, published Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, is based on household surveys of more than 3,000 homes in the territory, where researchers found a boom in the mortality rate between late September and late December 2017.

The authors of the study, which was largely funded by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, described the official death count as a “substantial underestimate” and called it evidence of the “inattention of the U.S. government to the frail infrastructure of Puerto Rico.”

“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,” they wrote.

Researchers found that “interruption of medical care was the primary cause” of the high mortality rate that came after the storm made landfall.

With the 2019 hurricane season in swing, the authors also urged chronically ill patients, communities and health care providers to develop contingency plans for future disasters.

For reference, Hurricane Katrina resulted in the death of 1,833 people, according to reports provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other authorities. If this estimate is even close to being accurate, it would mean that the toll on Puerto Rico alone would far surpass the Katrina total and would make Maria one of the worst natural disasters in American history. The estimate itself is based on both an examination of official records and on an island-wide survey conducted in the past several months aimed to uncoverings deaths related to Hurricane Maria that may have gone unreported or may have been attributed to other causes. This likely 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.

This report comes, of course, at a time when the impact of Maria in both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands has largely slipped from public attention. While much of the nation has moved on, it’s clear from even current reporting that it will be several years at least before either of these American territories are able to recover from the damage that was inflicted upon them by this storm. It also comes at a time when Congress is set to return to Washington and deal with requests for additional disaster funding for both locations. Whether they’ll authorize it is, apparently, still an open question. All of this while thousands of people remain without power and transportation outside of major cities like San Juan remains difficult.



FILED UNDER: Natural Disasters, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Hal_10000 says:

    This, to me, should be THE scandal of this Administration. Not Russia, not Stormy Daniels, not his corruption — although those matter. The terrible response, the failure to follow through and the insistence that he did everything right while presiding over an event comparable to the War in Iraq in the number of Americans killed. And this is heavily on Trump since his FEMA head was actually qualified for the position; it was Trump who failed to make this a priority and failed to provide the resources needed. Trump throwing towels into the crowd is an image that makes “Mission Accomplished” look reasonable by comparison.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    A slow motion 9-11, and no one cars.

  3. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:


    “The loss of life, it’s always tragic. But it’s been incredible…The results that we’ve had with respect to loss of life. People can’t believe how successful that has been, relatively speaking.”

    “I would give myself a 10,”

  4. SKI says:

    This has really been bothering me. That the Administration can’t shoot straight doesn’t mean they can’t kill. Add in their inherent racism and you have more US citizens dead than in Katrina, 9/11 or Afghanistan.

    I do think we need a word that connotes when we are shocked/appalled/enraged but not surprised…

  5. KM says:

    The official stat is only 64; how in the world do they square that? Irma killed over 80 people in one state alone and they’re trying to say the storm that took out a whole island had a lower body count?

    Utterly disgraceful. PR *still* is down for the count and the season’s begun anew. This is the government trying to cover up what a massive failure happened on their watch, plain and simple. We went to war because terrorists killed 3000 Americans but can’t be bothered when more then that get wiped out by Mother Nature.

  6. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:


    Nobody could have done what I’ve done for #PuertoRico with so little appreciation. So much work!

  7. de stijl says:

    It’s divisible by 2 and 4 and 8 and 16 and 32. Just as a number 64 rocks. The cool kids agree. 128 and 256 agree too. This is late eighties computer journalism here.

    But as a number thing you put up as the true death total in this context it is ludicrous and laughable. Thousands died but we ignored them because it was convenient to do so. We feel better with 64 rather than 6400.

    They are brown and poor. It’s not that they don’t count but many of us think that they cannot count, and the rest of us we just do not pay attention.

    Had this happened on some island owned by North Korea this would have been front page news for months. People killed by countries we hate mean a lot. People killed by our own inattention is just literally ignored. Can I speak with whose someone in charge, please? I have some suggestions.

  8. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @de stijl: People in f* Cuba were far better off after Maria than what is effectively a part of the United States of America.

  9. Tyrell says:

    I am somewhat questionable of these
    “Harvard Studies”. I will look at other sources and see what they are saying. Also, people I know who live there.