Harvard Study Calculates Puerto Rico Hurricane Deaths at 4,645, 73 Times the Official Estimate
The actual death toll after Hurricane Maria largely destroyed Puerto Rico last year was 4,645 people between September 20 and December 31, 2017, 73 times the official estimate of 64 dead, according to a study led by the Harvard School of Public Health and published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“The Harvard findings indicate that health care disruption for the elderly and the loss of basic utility services for the chronically ill had significant impacts, and the study criticized Puerto Rico’s methods for counting the dead—and its lack of transparency in sharing information—as detrimental to planning for future natural disasters,” the Washington Post reports. “The authors called for patients, communities, and doctors to develop contingency plans for such disasters.”
Like this story? Subscribe to The Energy Mix and never miss an edition of our free e-digest.
“As the world knows, the magnitude of this tragic disaster caused by Hurricane Maria resulted in many fatalities,” said Carlos R. Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration. “We have always expected the number to be higher than what was previously reported.” He said his organization welcomed the Harvard study and looked forward to analyzing it.
The study counted direct and indirect deaths as a result of the Category 4 storm, one-third of them because of delayed or interrupted medical care, the Thomson Reuters Foundation reports. The estimates were based on a survey of thousands of residents of the devastated island, and the margin for error was wide—“statistically, the actual number could be as low as 793 and as high as 8,498,” the news agency explains. “When the researchers tried to adjust for the fact that people living in single-person households couldn’t report their own death, they estimated 5,740 excess deaths, with a margin of error ranging from 1,506 and 9,889.”
But based on any of those numbers, the survey results “are likely to be controversial because the tally is far higher than previous independent estimates, the margin of error is wide, and the emergency response to the disaster has become highly politicized” after it sparked criticism of Donald Trump’s callous and selective response. His administration “promoted a much lower death toll and was faulted when much of the territory remained without power for months,” Thomson Reuters notes.
In December, the New York Times placed the excess death toll at 1,052, including suicides, based on vital statistics data.
“Increases in post-hurricane death rates were observed across age groups and were not a reflection of the migration of younger persons out of Puerto Rico after the disaster,” the Harvard report stated. Citing the study, Thomson Reuter adds that “households went, on average, 68 days without water, 84 days without electricity, and 41 days without cell phone coverage. In the most remote areas, 83% of the households were still without power by December 31.”
In its coverage of the study release, the Washington Post recounts the last minutes of a victim who died while waiting for help.
“There was nothing her family could do. It took 20 minutes to find cellular reception to make a 911 call. Inoperative traffic signals slowed down the ambulance struggling to reach their neighbourhood through crippling congestion,” the Post recounts.
“Ivette Leon’s eyes bulged in terror as she described to her daughter the tiny points of light that appeared before her. She took one last desperate gulp of air just as paramedics arrived. Far too late.”