George Washington University study estimates Hurricane Maria deaths in Puerto Rico at 2,975
It’s been a long, arduous process of putting together the broken pieces of the post-Hurricane story, as thousands were reported dead or missing in Puerto Rico after the disaster’s wake. The statistics that calculated the death toll were worryingly uncertain, and the media was left to report a reality obscured by gaping numerical inconsistencies. A recent George Washington University study may have cleared up a bit of the muddled picture, as researchers estimated 2,975 excess deaths following the hurricane. The study not only found a population reduction of 8% between September 2017 and February 2018, but it also examines government agencies’ failure in reporting reliable death statistics, blaming it on a breakdown of public health infrastructure and insufficient communication among personnel at the time of the hurricane. The research concludes that public health and safety messages “did not adequately prepare Puerto Rican communities for a catastrophic natural disaster.” Authors of the study recommend an improvement of institutional mortality surveillance in order to avoid such confusion in the case of a future disaster, including the creation of an “Integrated Puerto Rican Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication Plan and Planning Process,” as well as the coordination of emergency risk communication systems.
These new statistics put the death toll estimate at a number 46 times higher than the government’s original finding. In December 2017, the government reported only 64 storm-related deaths. The new estimate is a progressive step in gaining a clearer picture of the devastating toll the Hurricane took on the islands. Unlike the original estimate, the new statistics account for the myriad branches of impact of which the Hurricane was responsible, including deaths caused directly or indirectly by public health disruptions. Yet, Governor Ricardo Rosselló remains skeptical in calling the report the final word. “This number can change,” he told CNN, “It could be less, it could be more, as time passes.” Rosello went on to admit he regrets how he handled the situation: “I agree I made mistakes. I agree on that. … This could have been done differently. I recognize all that,” he said. “However, I reject the notion that this was somehow connected to any political consideration. My only consideration is the well-being of the people of Puerto Rico. My only consideration was getting the best available information and the truth out there.”
The controversy over death toll estimates isn’t new news. The statistical accuracy– or lack thereof– has been a point of debate and contention since the storm struck last fall. CNN, The New York Times, and Harvard University have all publicized contradicting estimates, with estimates ranging from 499 to over 8,000 mortalities. The new George Washington University report hopes to clear the air in its analysis of population changes since the storm, accounting for migration and its in-depth analysis of death certificate data quality.