The loss of life is largely attributed to a lack of medical services and utilities available in the wake of the storm
A new Harvard study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that at least 4,645 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria. The study’s findings contrast the official government death toll of 64, and attributes many of the casualties to health-care disruption and the loss of basic utility services for the chronically ill or elderly in particular. Additionally, the researchers found that the government of Puerto Rico stopped sharing mortality data with the public in December 2017.
Led by scientists at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the team of researchers calculated the number of deaths by surveying 3,300 randomly selected households and comparing the estimated post-hurricane death rate to the mortality rate for the prior year. According the The Washington Post, the study found the mortality rate was 14.3 deaths per 1,000 residents from Sept. 20 through Dec. 31, 2017. This number marks a 62% increase in the mortality rate compared to 2016.
“As the United States prepares for its next hurricane season, it will be critical to review how disaster-related deaths will be counted, in order to mobilize an appropriate response operation and account for the fate of those affected,” the study said.
The massive study involved researchers interviewing members of 3,300 households across Puerto Rico. About 15% of the people interviewed reported that someone in their household was unable to get medicine following the storm. 10% said a household member could not use breathing equipment, which relies on electricity, and fewer than 10% had access to close medical facilities. Overall, the study estimates that approximately one-third of storm-related deaths were due to a delay in medical attention, as reported by The New York Times.
Counting official deaths in the wake of a natural disaster can be tricky and the Puerto Rico government has received criticism after President Trump visited in October 2017, specifically commenting on the low death count of 16 at the time. Following pressure from Congress and contrary analysis' by news organizations which found the death count to be well over 1,000, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello commissioned George Washington University experts to review the government’s death certification process. The initial report will be released in the coming weeks.
If the Harvard report proves accurate, Hurricane Maria was one of the deadliest storms in U.S. history, surpassing Hurricane Katrina, which had an official death toll of 1,836.