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Another Study Finds Maria Death Toll Much Higher Than Official Numbers

Health + Wellness
View of displayed shoes in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in San Juan, on June 1. RICARDO ARDUENGO / AFP / Getty Images

As the 2018 hurricane season nears its height, another study has concluded that the official death toll from last year's devastating Hurricane Maria falls vastly short of reality.


A research letter, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Thursday, estimated that 1,139 people perished as a result of the storm that pummeled Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017.

That's fewer than the approximately 5,000 deaths estimated by a Harvard study published in May, but still 15 to 20 times higher than the official death toll of 64 reported by the Puerto Rican government, according to CNN.

"They clearly were not counting all of (the deaths)," study co-author and assistant professor of health at the University of Texas at San Antonio Jeffrey T. Howard told CNN. "They can't be. There were just too many deaths."

To get their results, the researchers looked at official death statistics for Puerto Rico from January 2010 to December 2017. They used this information to calculate the average deaths expected per month, then compared them to the number of people who had died in September through December 2017, representing the hurricane and its immediate aftermath. They found that there were 1,139 excess deaths.

The numbers were lower than the Harvard study because the two used different methods: while this study was based on the statistical record, the Harvard study was based on a survey of 3,299 households, according to CNN. The most recent research paper says that the Harvard study had a high degree of uncertainty and both underestimated pre-hurricane deaths and overestimated post-hurricane deaths.

Alexis Raúl Santos, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Penn State and the study's other author, said that his study was designed to take into account deaths caused by lack of resources following the hurricane.

"When the area is flooded and without power, that's not a safe environment for a grandmother on dialysis," Santos said in a Penn State University press release. "That's not a safe environment for someone who has an asthma attack and may need therapy. Essentially, that's what we're trying to address. Not just the people who drowned or died in landslides, but also the people who died because they didn't have access to their basic needs."

The government's official death toll only counts deaths that were listed as "hurricane related" on the death certificate, according to the research paper.

The Puerto Rican government has asked George Washington University to review its official death toll, and the results are expected this summer.

"Once we commissioned GW to do this study we stopped counting," spokesperson for the Puerto Rican governor's office in Washington, DC Pedro Cerame told CNN. "The number hasn't changed not because we believe there were only 64 deaths but because we're waiting for this study."

Santos, for his part, said the aim of his research was to assist the government in better preparing for similar disasters in the future.

"The Caribbean is set to be hit by more weather disasters in the future, based on forecast models, and we don't want history to repeat itself," Santos told Penn State. "If we have a better idea of the damage that Hurricane Maria actually did, then maybe we can use that experience to inform and reshape protocols, policies and emergency management processes."

Hurricane Maria left millions without power for months.

As of Thursday, there were still 100 Puerto Ricans without power, according to CBS News Correspondent David Begnaud, who has been regularly tweeting the number of Puerto Ricans without power following the storm.

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