Harvard researchers have put the death toll from Hurricane Maria at 4,645 — more than 70 times higher than official figures. The storm caused more than $90 billion in damage.
The New England Journal of Medicine has published the results of an independent study conducted by researchers from Harvard University on the death toll from Hurricane Maria, which devastated the US territory of Puerto Rico last September. The study estimates that at least 4,645 people died between the time the storm made landfall on September 20 and December 31, 2017.
That number, which researchers say could itself be a "substantial underestimate," is over 70 times higher than the official death toll of 64 released by Puerto Rico's government. Researchers say as many as 5,700 people may have been killed during the storm. They attribute that estimate to the fact that they were unable to gather information on many of the island's 3.3 million residents living on their own in isolated locations.
Between January and February, researchers conducted door-to-door surveys at 3,299 randomly selected homes. They say many residents "were still without water and electricity" at the time the survey was conducted. If a family member was missing, but not known to be dead, they were counted as alive by researchers.
Many deaths in storm aftermath
Overall, the number of deaths was 62 percent higher than during the same time period the year before. Deaths, say researchers, occurred as a direct result of the immediate impact of the storm or because of lack of access to medical care due to power outages or washed-out roads.
The report claims: "Approximately one-third of post-hurricane deaths were reported by household members as being caused by delayed or prevented access to medical care."
Residents on the island went without electricity for an average of 84 days, without water for 64 days and without cellphone coverage for 41 days. The storm caused some $90 billion (€79 billion) in damages, making it the third-costliest in the US since 1900.
Storm after the hurricane
The storm also caused political tensions between the US territory and Washington, with many Puerto Ricans, most famously San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, claiming the US was treating them as second-class citizens by not providing sufficient aid. US President Donald Trump, on the other hand, praised the US effort, often citing the low death toll as a sign of success.
Harvard researchers were unable to directly compare their own estimates with the latest government statistics because Puerto Rican authorities have refused to share any information on hurricane-related deaths. The last time such data was made public was in December.