More than 4,600 people died in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, new study estimates


An estimated 4,645 people died in Puerto Rico in the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Maria, according to a new study from Harvard University.

That's a far greater number than the Puerto Rican government's official death toll, which still stands at 64 fatalities. The Harvard study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggests the number of excess deaths related to Maria is more than 70 times the official estimate.

Interruption of medical care was the primary cause of high mortality rates in Puerto Rico in the months after Maria, particularly chronically ill people dependent on medicine and equipment that required electricity and other basic utilities.

Funded by Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, researchers in the U.S. and Puerto Rico calculated the number of deaths by randomly surveying 3,299 homes across the island to produce an independent estimate. Scientists found that between September 2017 to December 2017, there was a 62 percent increase in the mortality rate compared to the previous period a year before. Researchers believe the number of "excess deaths" calculated is a conservative estimate – taking into account other factors, the number is closer to more than 5000.

"Our results indicate that the official death count of 64 is a substantial underestimate of the true burden of mortality after Hurricane Maria," the study says.

Carlos R. Mercader, executive director of Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said in a statement that the Puerto Rican government welcomed the study and looked forward to analyzing it. The U.S. territory's government also commissioned a study on the number of fatalities from George Washington University.

"As the world knows, the magnitude of this tragic disaster caused by Hurricane Maria resulted in many fatalities," Mercader said. "We have always expected the number to be higher than what was previously reported. … Both studies will help us better prepare for future natural disasters and prevent lives from being lost."

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