Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico in September 2017, almost a year ago, and the country has been devastated by the aftermath of the natural disaster. Not only has the country suffered severe structural damage as a result, but the death toll climbed dramatically in the months following.
A new study, commissioned by the governor of Puerto Rico and conducted by researchers at George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health, indicates that the actual death toll of the disaster may be just shy of 3,000, as CBS News reported.
Between the months of September 2017 and February 2018, the study found that approximately 2,975 people lost their lives as a result of the hurricane and its after-effects.
The study took the total number of deaths in the country in that time frame and subtracted the average deaths that had historically occurred during those months between 2010 and 2017. This served to eliminate the deaths that likely would have happened even if the island had not been hit by Maria. The total number of deaths were obtained from the Puerto Rico Vital Statistics Records division of the Puerto Rico Department of Health.
Another factor that the study looked at closely was that of who was most affected by the hurricane.
Statistics showed that the risk of death was "45 percent higher and persistent until the end of the study period for populations living in low socioeconomic development municipalities." It also determined that the most at risk based on age and gender were men over the age of 65.
"Overall, we estimate that 40 percent of municipalities experienced significantly higher mortality in the study period than in the comparable period of the previous two years," the report says.
Shortly after the hurricane, the government initially reported just 64 deaths related to the disaster. Later studies indicated much higher death tolls, although none seemed to agree as to the exact number. One Harvard University study suggested the number might be as high as 4,000.
The George Washington University study puts the number of deaths between September and December 2017 at about 2,098 deaths, with the number rising to 2,975 by the end of February.
Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, issued a statement about the devastating statistic.
"The reality is that we take this very seriously. 2,975 — it's 2,975 people who suffered."The study concluded that the government's initial estimate of just 64 deaths was a result of poor training of medical professionals when it comes to appropriate death certificate protocols. As a result, only those deaths that came about as a result of the storm, such as those "caused by structural collapse, flying debris, floods, and drownings" were initially counted.
Physicians were found to be unaware of "appropriate death certification practices, especially in a disaster setting."
"Those interviewed said they did not receive information about how to certify deaths during, or in conditions created by, a disaster," the report says. "Many stated that the Puerto Rico Department of Health (DoH) and the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety (DPS) did not notify them about the CDC special guidelines for correct documentation of cases, on the importance of correctly documenting deaths related to the hurricane or on an emergency protocol for handling these cases."