Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, just two weeks after Hurricane Irma struck the island. While Puerto Rico has said the official death toll from Maria is 64, a study published today in the New England Journal of Medicine claims that the number of fatalities is a substantial underestimate.
Researchers with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health estimate that the death toll could be 70 times higher than the official pronouncement based on a projection rather than hard data, NPR explained.
“The research team randomly selected 3,299 households in Puerto Rico. Local scientists surveyed them over the course of three weeks in January. People in those homes reported a total of 38 deaths. The scientists then extrapolated that finding to the island’s total population of 3.4 million people to estimate the number of deaths. The researchers then subtracted deaths recorded during that same period in 2016, and concluded that the mortality rate in Puerto Rico had jumped 62 percent in the three months following the storm.”
The “excess death” toll from September 20 through December 31, according to the Harvard study, is 4,645, but the scientists also claim that their estimate could itself be an underestimate.
The Harvard study, which was compiled without the assistance of Puerto Rican government officials, appears to be consistent with independent findings from several news agencies and academic institutions.
Faced with allegations of undercounting, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo A. Rossello recently appointed George Washington University public health researchers to audit the data on Maria-related fatalities, and their report is due later this year.
The Harvard study suggests that in the aftermath of a natural disaster, the delay or disruption of ongoing medical care to address pre-existing conditions, particularly, but not exclusively in elderly persons, is the primary cause of death in the subsequent months.
“Growing numbers of persons have chronic diseases and use sophisticated pharmaceutical and mechanical support that is dependent on electricity. Chronically ill patients are particularly vulnerable to disruptions in basic utilities, which highlights the need for these patients, their communities, and their providers to have contingency plans during and after disasters.”
Hurricane Maria knocked out power for 3.4 million residents of Puerto Rico, and many were without electricity for months afterward. Many were left homeless by landslides and flooding. Overall, the storm is said to have caused $90 billion in damages to infrastructure.
The Daily Mail claims a separate report in October indicated that funeral homes were cremating deceased persons without counting them in the Hurricane Maria death toll.