Hurricane Maria killed 2,975 in Puerto Rico, new study says

Deaths in Puerto Rico photo
Researchers said there were 22 percent more deaths in the six months after Hurricane Maria than expected for Puerto Rico. File Photo by Master Sgt. Joshua DeMotts/U.S. Air Force | License Photo

By Danielle Haynes

Aug. 28 (UPI) — Independent researchers from George Washington University on Tuesday said the death toll from Hurricane Maria was more than double the 1,427 people the Puerto Rican government calculated.

The study, a collaboration between GWU’s Milken Institute School of Public Health and the University of Puerto Rico Graduate School of Public Health, blamed the Category 5 storm in September for 2,975 deaths on the island territory. The toll included both direct and indirect deaths between September and February.

Researchers determined the figure by examining deaths on the island from 2010 to 2017 and compared that to the data from the six months after Hurricane Maria made landfall. They determined there were 22 percent more deaths in Puerto Rico from September to February than expected.

“The results of our epidemiological study suggest that, tragically, Hurricane Maria led to a large number of excess deaths throughout the island,” Carlos Santos-Burgoa, the study’s lead researcher, said in a statement. “We hope this report and its recommendations will help build the island’s resilience and pave the way toward a plan that will protect all sectors of society in times of natural disasters.”

Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who commissioned the study, told El Nuevo Dia that the territory had not been adequately prepared for a direct hit from a major hurricane.

“This denotes the magnitude of the catastrophe,” he said, adding that his administration is “not perfect.”

“At that time we had a protocol. We did not realize until a little later that it was totally insufficient … unfortunately there was no formal process to prepare [doctors] for the devastation,” he added.

Earlier this month, the Puerto Rican government said 1,427 people died in the aftermath of the storm, a sharp increase from the 64 it originally reported.

When the hurricane hit Puerto Rico, it essentially wiped out the entire electrical grid and much of the island territory’s infrastructure, including roads, hospitals, water supply and telecommunications networks. The National Hurricane Center said Hurricane Maria caused an estimated $90 billion damage in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the third-costliest hurricane in U.S. history.

In the aftermath of the storm, medical conditions such as diabetes and sepsis soared. Many people died from lack of healthcare or because there was no power to run medical equipment like dialysis and breathing machines.

But a Harvard study released in May put the toll at 4,645, with most deaths blamed on delayed medical care.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who was vocal in her criticisms of the federal government’s handling of relief efforts after the hurricane, said the deaths reported Tuesday were due partly to negligence.

“For you can kill people with a gun or you can kill them with neglect. The second happened” in Puerto Rico, she tweeted. The number “of deaths 2,975 reinforces the pain inflicted on the people of [Puerto Rico] and the violation of our human rights. They will not be forgotten.”

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