Officials raise Puerto Rico’s death toll from Hurricane Maria to nearly 3,000 people

By Aimee Cunningham

 
The Puerto Rican government has officially updated its tally of lives lost to Hurricane Maria to an estimated 2,975. That number, reported August 28 in a government-commissioned study by George Washington University in Washington D.C., dwarfs the island’s previous count of 64, which officials later acknowledged was far too low.

The study covers September 2017 through February 2018 — two months longer than other recent estimates for the post-hurricane death toll (SN Online: 8/2/18). An absence of clear guidelines for how to certify deaths during a disaster, the researchers found, meant many death certificates didn’t reflect the role of the Category 5 storm, which hit the island on September 20, 2017.

Based on mortality data including death certificates, the new 2,975 estimate falls between two other recent counts. One study in May estimated 4,645 deaths from the hurricane through December 2017 by surveying nearly 3,300 randomly selected households in January and February (SN Online: 5/29/18). Another study in August counted 1,139 excess deaths during the same period, by analyzing and comparing monthly death counts from January 2010 through December 2017.

In a report to Congress, a draft of which was published in July, Puerto Rican officials unofficially acknowledged that the death toll was likely far higher than 64, based on its counting roughly 1,427 more deaths in the four months after the storm than in the same period in the previous four years.

While different methodologies have resulted in different death estimates, the new report “highlights that the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico continued until February 2018,” says Alexis Santos, a demographer at Penn State University who was not involved in the new report but was a coauthor of the August study. “All we can do is try to help those still suffering in Puerto Rico.”