Puerto Rico was ravaged by Hurricane Maria one year ago next month.
Since the island’s long recovery began, the government and independent institutions have worked to figure out exactly how many lives were taken by the effects of the extreme storm.
Today, we have a new, better estimate — and it’s more than 46 times the old one.
According to a new study released by George Washington University (GW), 2,975 people died as a result of the hurricane. The government of Puerto Rico now accepts that number as an accurate death toll, updating their previous official estimate of 64.
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The GW group teamed up with the University of Puerto Rico Graduate School of Public Health to analyze death certificates and other mortality data collected from September 2017 to February 2018. They found that the number of deaths during that time were uncharacteristically high, when compared to that same time period from other years.
“The results of our epidemiological study suggest that, tragically, Hurricane Maria led to a large number of excess deaths throughout the island. Certain groups – those in lower income areas and the elderly – faced the highest risk,” lead investigator Carlos Santos-Burgoa said in statement on Tuesday.
In fact, the study found that in the poorest communities, the risk of dying increased 60 percent in the wake of Hurricane Maria. And the risk of dying increased 35 percent for older Puerto Rican males.
This means that though the exact causes of death may be varied or unclear, in the six months after Hurricane Maria, more people died than usual.
This kind of statistical analysis allows researchers to say that the hurricane left groups of people extremely vulnerable after the storm, even if the flooding rains and wind didn’t explicitly kill these individuals.
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Researchers and journalists alike have long speculated that Puerto Rico’s official death toll of 64 was suspiciously low.
Back in 2017, a New York Times investigation estimated that the death toll was around 1,052 — nearly 1,000 more than the original calculation. This led the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Roselló, to commission an independent study looking into the death toll in February 2018.
“It is of great interest to the State to identify how many lives were lost due to the passage of Maria through the Island,” Roselló said in a statement announcing the effort.
“It is our interest that experts can identify as accurately as possible the deaths directly and indirectly associated with the hurricane to improve protocols for future natural disasters.”
In early July, researchers at Harvard released a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine which estimated that an excess of 4,500 people died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria by surveying more than 3,000 houses.
Then in late July, the Puerto Rican government quietly acknowledged that the death toll was likely much higher than 64, after releasing a 400-page document that put the toll at more than 1,400 people. The government waited for the GW study to officially update the death toll.
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The newest count puts Hurricane Maria in second place as the deadliest hurricane to ever hit the United States, behind the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 which reportedly took 6,000 lives or more.
Aside from the official death toll, the study also provided recommendations to Puerto Rico’s local government and the U.S. federal government to better prepare for the next deadly storm.
The study suggests a more efficient way to tally deaths after disasters, a fully staffed Department of Health, better intra-department communication, and other recommendations.
“The lessons learned from this report and subsequent studies will help not just Puerto Rico, but other regions in the U.S. and around the world that face the ongoing threat of hurricanes and other natural disasters,” co-author Lynn R. Goldman said.
“If enacted, the recommendations of this report could help save lives in Puerto Rico and beyond.”