Death Count From Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico Could be 20 Times Higher Than the Government Claims

A man plays his accordion in front of a closed-down business in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on November 7, 2017. Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images

More than two months after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico and devastated the island — knocking out its power grid and leaving millions without potable water — the official death toll has stayed surprisingly low at 55.

Yet no one who’s been following Puerto Rico’s hurricane disaster closely believes that to be an accurate representation of the lives taken by the storm. Journalists on the ground in Puerto Rico and here on the mainland have helped paint a very different picture of underreported deaths, prompting members of Congress to demand audits of the death count.

Now two social science researchers have shown that the actual death count may be closer to 1,085, a number that exceeds the government’s official figure by a factor of 20. (By comparison, at least 1,800 people died in connection to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — the deadliest hurricane to hit US soil in the past 50 years.)

Alexis Santos, a Puerto Rican demographer at Penn State, and Jeffrey Howard, an independent health scientist and epidemiologist, calculated average monthly deaths from 2010 through 2016 using a methodology that other researchers have told Vox is one of the best ways to calculate estimates of disaster deaths.

Santos and Howard used the Puerto Rico Vital Statistics System to compare the historical averages for September and October of the past seven years to the total number of September and October 2017 deaths recently reported by the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety to see if there were notable differences.

The results were staggering: They found that in September 2017 — the month that Maria hit — there were 518 more deaths than the recent historical average for September and 567 more deaths in October 2017 than the recent historical average for October. That’s a total of 1,085 deaths likely linked to the hurricane. And given that widespread power outages have continued into November, the number of indirect deaths from the hurricane is probably higher still.

The finding supports reports from several media outlets, including Vox, CNN, and BuzzFeed, that found hundreds of hurricane-related deaths that were not included in the official count. These reports were based on interviews with funeral home directors, doctors, and local officials. On November 21, a CNN investigation found 499 hurricane-related deaths reported by funeral homes from September 20 to October 19, for example.

The government of Puerto Rico has defended its methodology of counting storm deaths, repeating that 55 is the most accurate number. But rather than actively trying to find and investigate reports of deaths in the aftermath of the storm, it has been passive, counting only deaths where all the information was easily accessible. The government has also been overly cautious in linking deaths to the hurricane, despite the strong evidence indicating that the real number is more likely in the hundreds, if not thousands.

To be sure, the hurricane severely damaged not just Puerto Rico’s power infrastructure and health care system but also basic government functions and medical data collection. And the island’s death processing system has been totally overwhelmed.

Santos and Howard’s work is still in preprint form, which means it has not yet been through peer review. And the government still has not released its official death totals for September and October. So treat these findings as preliminary.

But they suggest that the official toll is far from accurate and does not convey the extent of the impact of the hurricane. “The issue of how many deaths there were from the devastation goes hand in hand with the attention this is going to get in Congress,” said Santos.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló recently asked that Congress and federal agencies give $94.4 billion in funds for recovery, on the grounds that it will be the “most transparent” recovery effort in US history.

But there isn’t much transparency around a statistic that is fundamental to understanding a disaster — the death toll shapes how we perceive the extent of the harm, how we assess the response, and how many resources we allocate for recovery. And Puerto Ricans, meanwhile, are being left in the dark, wondering if their loved ones lost after the storm will ever be acknowledged by their government.

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SOURCE: Vox, Eliza Barclay and Alexia Fernández Campbell