Hurricane Maria Death Toll In Puerto Rico Estimated Thousands Higher Than Initial Reports

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Beach workers walk along a street in Punta Santiago. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Beach workers walk along a street in Punta Santiago. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

With Kimberly Atkins

The government reported 64 dead in Puerto Rico from last year’s Hurricane Maria. But new research says the toll was thousands higher. We look at why — and what now.


David Begnaud, correspondent for CBS News. (@DavidBegnaud)

Nishant Kishore, graduate student at Harvard’s School of Public Health and one of the authors of the study that found the higher-than-reported death toll in Puerto Rico.

Vann Newkirk, staff writer at The Atlantic covering politics and policy, he has reported extensively on Puerto Rico. (@fivefifths)

From The Reading List:

Harvard School Of Public Health: "Study estimates a prolonged increase in death rate in Puerto Rico in months following Hurricane Maria" — "The mortality rate in Puerto Rico rose by 62% [95% confidence interval (CI) 11% to 114%] after Hurricane Maria, according to a new study led by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The study was conducted in January and February 2018, in collaboration with colleagues from Carlos Albizu University in Puerto Rico and the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

The researchers concluded that the original estimate of 64 excess deaths due to Hurricane Maria is likely to be a substantial underestimate. The study estimates a death rate of 14.3 deaths per thousand [95% CI 9.8 to 18.9] between September 20 (date of Hurricane Maria) and December 31, 2017, up from a rate of 8.8 deaths per thousand at the same time in 2016. About one third of the reported deaths in the households surveyed in the study were attributed to delayed or prevented access to medical care."

The Atlantic: "The True Scope of the Disaster in Puerto Rico" — "As I spent time reporting from Puerto Rico three weeks after Maria, two things became clear: The storm had a staggering impact on the island, and it was almost impossible to translate that impact to observers on the mainland. People are used to gauging the scale of far-off events by relying on official estimates of death tolls, dollar amounts of damages, and the like. But in the immediate chaos following the storm, the 'official' story was clearly inadequate. Some residents just went missing. Some got swept away in floods. Entire branches of extended families went silent. Mudslides and floods essentially turned remote places in the island’s mountainous interior into islands in their own right. In my attempts to assess the human burden of the hurricane, I asked everyone I interviewed—over two dozen people—if they knew someone who’d disappeared, died, or had fled to the mainland. Each person told me 'yes.'

Official counts are obviously more difficult to perform than my anecdotal one, and not just because of scale: Further complicating the picture are mismatched systems in hospitals and morgues that might double-count some victims or misidentify others, as well as tough decision-making over just what counts as a hurricane-related death. In its survey of over 3,200 Puerto Rican households, the team behind the new study tried to get around those difficulties by asking families directly about the deaths of loved ones."

A new study this week has a shocking new assessment of the human cost of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The official death toll was 64 souls. But Harvard researchers say the true count was more than 70 times that — 4,600 people – making it one of the deadliest storms in U.S. history. How is such a huge miscount even possible? And, as the new hurricane season begins tomorrow, what lies ahead?

This hour, On Point: the toll of Hurricane Maria, revisited.

Kimberly Atkins

This program aired on May 31, 2018.


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