Puerto Rico’s government is getting closer to delivering an answer to the long-simmering question about the true death toll from Hurricane Maria, the now-infamous storm that smashed into the island on September 20.
On Wednesday, the government submitted a report to Congress in which it acknowledges that there were 1,427 more deaths than normal in the aftermath of the disaster, a substantially higher figure than the official death toll of 64 it gave for months after the storm.
The 1,427 deaths were calculated by comparing the number of deaths in the four months after the hurricane to the average number of deaths in the previous four years. This figure was first acknowledged by the government in June, and the new report says the deaths may or may not be attributable to the storm. It will update the official count after a study it commissioned from George Washington University researchers is completed. (That study is expected to come out this summer.)
Still, “[Hurricane Irma and Maria’s] devastating effects on people’s health and safety cannot be overstated,” the report reads. “Damage to critical infrastructure resulted in cascading failures of lifeline systems of energy, transportation, communications, and water supply and wastewater treatment.”
The report to Congress, submitted Wednesday and first reported by the New York Times, requests $139 billion in aid to continue the recovery from the Category 4 hurricane.
To assess the ongoing damage and needs in the aftermath of the storm on the island, the government conducted interviews and focus groups. The report includes a number of poignant details about the devastation from the storm — and particularly how power outages contributed to the staggering death toll.
“Maunabo has a lot of older, sick, and bedridden people,” said one focus group participant from the town. “Here we had deaths because of the lack of electric power. I had people call me at 1 am to tell me that a person died because the respiratory aid was turned off.”
Journalists and researchers who have analyzed government data and reports from the ground have long maintained that the death toll was much higher than the official count — and some found evidence that it was likely to be over 1,000. For instance, Vox reported in October 2017 that the death toll was likely over 450. And in the past six months, several researchers have come up with estimates that vary somewhat from the government’s new count of 1,427.
A study by researchers at Harvard, published in May in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that more than 4,600 Puerto Ricans may have died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. And, they wrote, the estimate of total deaths “is likely to be conservative since subsequent adjustments for survivor bias and household-size distributions increase this estimate to more than 5,000.” The only other US disaster on record with a higher death toll is the Galveston, Texas, hurricane of 1900, when somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 people died, the Harvard researchers noted.
Alexis Santos, a Puerto Rican demographer at Penn State who conducted his own analysis of mortality following the hurricane, also published a paper in the journal JAMA on August 2, with Jeffrey Howard of the University of Texas San Antonio, estimating the death toll at 1,139. The difference in the figures is due to slight differences in methodology in estimating deaths attributable to the storm and its aftermath, but they all show that the government initially underestimated the toll of the storm.
Regardless of what the exact figure is, it’s clear that the Trump administration failed to respond to the crisis on the island with sufficient support and that many of the deaths that ensued likely could have been prevented if more attention and resources had been offered early on. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote, “The carnage in Puerto Rico is the most severe manifestation of Trump’s basic unfitness for the job he currently occupies. ... If you put a telegenic demagogue in office, you will get some choice moments of televised demagoguery. You won’t get an adequate response to a hurricane, and that means you will get a sky-high death toll.”